If the second half of “Talk to Me” were as good as the first half, the film would easily be one of the year’s best. It starts out breathlessly funny, fast-paced, and energetic before ultimately settling in to a standard biopic formula that’s not nearly as compelling.
It’s the story of Petey Greene, legendary in some circles as a Washington D.C. radio star, comedian, and political activist in the 1960s — all of which he accomplished after doing prison time for armed robbery. His short-lived TV talk show (excerpts of which can be found on YouTube) was a clear inspiration for Tim Meadows’ “Ladies Man” character on “Saturday Night Live.” He was a “shock jock” back when Howard Stern was still in grade school, and he wasn’t doing it just to be shocking, either. He meant what he said.
Greene is played by Don Cheadle, usually a dramatic actor (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash,” “Traffic”) but obviously adept at comedy, too. His Petey Greene talks fast and has a certain way with words, peppering his language with profanity the way a chef seasons a particularly zesty dish. Having earned the love of his fellow inmates when he served as their prison radio DJ, Petey heads straight for WOL-AM, an R&B station, when he’s released in 1966.
His contact at the radio station is Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ambitious and successful mid-level management type who Petey assumes will be on his side simply because they’re both black. As it happens, the station manager, Sonderling (Martin Sheen), your basic Uptight White Guy, has recently been complaining that the station is losing touch with the “real” D.C. Advertisers have been catering to the Beltway and Georgetown — that is to say, white — audiences, and the black listeners have been leaving. Dewey Hughes is tasked with making programming changes to woo them back. Petey Greene might be just the thing.
Petey’s a little rough around the edges, of course. His only broadcasting experience was in prison, where he had no competition and where he could swear as much as he wanted to. Commercial radio, even aimed at inner-city listeners, has standards and regulations to abide by.
But Petey’s show on WOL is an instant hit, of course, and soon Dewey appoints himself Petey’s manager, booking public appearances for him as a comedian and entertainer. When Martin Luther King is killed in 1968, Petey’s voice has a calming, soothing influence on the city, quelling some of the rage that threatened to destroy it. He’s a hero within the black community, a voice of the people.
The conflict in the film, written by Michael Genet (“She Hate Me”) and Rick Famuyiwa (“Brown Sugar”) and directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “The Caveman’s Valentine”), is twofold. One, Petey is uncomfortable with the popularity and fame, preferring to do his little radio show and go home and drink for a while. Two, Dewey is more ambitious than Petey is. It’s Dewey’s dream to appear on “The Tonight Show,” not Petey’s. He’s living vicariously through Petey, fulfilling the fantasies that he didn’t have the talent to make come true for himself.
The story loses steam around the midpoint, when Petey and Dewey start to clash and their working relationship dissolves. Like many biopics, this one starts out spanning just a couple years’ worth of events, then suddenly picks up speed: By the time it’s over, the year is 1984! Not coincidentally, the film is better when it’s narrowly focused. Trying to tell someone’s ENTIRE life story in two hours is nearly always a losing proposition.
When it’s on-target, though, it’s hilarious, even exciting. Cheadle’s performance is an absolute smash, from Petey’s effortless radio patter to his stormy personal relationships, all of it conveyed believably with just a touch of the theatrical about it. (Also worthy of mention are Taraji P. Henson as Petey’s ghetto-fabulous girlfriend and Cedric the Entertainer as a satin-voiced late-night DJ.)
There’s a scene early in the film where he and Dewey are shooting pool, having beers, and sizing each other up. Dewey thinks Petey is a thug with raw talent; Petey thinks Dewey is a sellout who acts like a white man all day. The sequence is positively electrifying: Both actors are magnificent, and the things their characters say to each other are volatile and full of truth, not to mention caustically funny. It’s a distillation of everything the film is trying to do, all encapsulated into one great scene. Just remember it later, when the story has begun to wallow in biopic moodiness.
B (1 hr., 58 min.; )