Talk To Me is the true story of ‘60s radio personality Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr., the fastest, sharpest talker since Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking. But where the fictional Nick spews pseudo-truths and corporate hogwash, Petey keeps it real and speaks about how things actually are. This explains why you probably haven’t heard of him, and why he never became quite as famous as he could have been. Nobody was in Petey’s way, ultimately, more than himself.
Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) directs this biopic written by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, which plays like a spunkier Good Morning Vietnam with a Motown twist. Don Cheadle, generally cast as the earnest do-gooder in films like Hotel Rwanda and Crash, taps into his hilarious, no-holds-barred side and demonstrates why he is easily one of the best actors around. He’s a little less Denzel here and a little more (!) Ice Cube.
We’ve all seen numerous films about the guy with big dreams who aims for the ceiling and winds up on the floor. It’s a testament to Talk To Me that it finds a fresh way of doing the familiar, even when it runs into a few roadblocks typical of this genre (it’s a comedy, laugh!; wait, it’s a drama, cry!).
Talk To Me works best as a light peek at a trash-talking, troublemaking DJ who can win anyone over with his words, if not his behavior. When Petey and Dewey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) first meet, they’re in prison: Petey is serving five to 10 years for doing an unspecified, dumb thing, and Dewey is visiting his screwed-up brother Milo (Mike Epps), who he’s never forgiven for blowing his potential. Their first encounter results in Dewey calling him a miscreant, something that Petey laughs about with his scene-stealing, sassy girlfriend (Taraji P. Henson) and the devoted listeners of his jailhouse radio show.
But once Petey gets early bail for talking a screaming guy off the roof (who, as it turns out, he helped talk up there in the first place), he demands a job at WOL radio station in Washington, D.C., where Dewey works as program director. It doesn’t go well, naturally, but after he gets on the air and works his off-kilter magic, there’s no turning back, even for the enraged station owner (Martin Sheen) who can’t ignore the high influx of calls. Petey is now the new morning show host, and Dewey is his reluctant-friend-turned-eager-career-manager.
Their friendship is what keeps the movie going, because even though you can sense where the plot is headed, you never really know what’s in store when these guys get together. There’s a great scene where Dewey goes all Color Of Money on Petey, who is forced to stop taunting his seemingly straight-laced buddy with the nickname “Mr. Tibbs.” You get the feeling that you’re watching a real friendship blossom between two very distinct people.
The film gets a bit heavy after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and the riots that ensue. It’s initially a poignant moment, when Petey stands outside watching his city on fire and then tries to talk listeners through their rage, but Talk To Me never quite regains its prior, energetic sense of humor. Even the infectious soundtrack, featuring tunes from Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown, slowly starts to fade into the background.
Regardless, Talk To Me is filled with highly quotable lines, excellent cast chemistry and an important final message that just might make you want to “Wake up, goddamnit!,” as Petey so eloquently puts it. And when he speaks, you’ll listen.