Being a radio DJ is one of the great fantasies I suspect most people have; being able to decide what people listen to and being able to tell the people what they may or may not want to hear. Being given a soapbox to communicate with an entire city is something that is extremely appealing. The truth of radio broadcasting is probably a lot less glamorous than this fantasy, after all most DJs don’t even pick the songs they play, but the idea is still worth fantasizing about. Talk to Me is about one of those radio personalities that keep this dream alive, in act he might be partly responsible for that dream’s existance.
The film tells the true story of Ralph “Petey” Green (Don Cheadle), a Washington D.C. DJ in the mid-sixties who was started his DJ career by playing records over the PA system of the prison he was sentenced to spend ten years of his life. After his parole Green went to Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the programming director at WOL, a fledgling D.C. R&B station, who was the brother of one of Green’s fellow inmates. Hughes is initially horrified at the notion of putting this profane convict on the air, but is eventually won over by Green’s streetwise personality and believes this personality will help regain the station’s African-American audience. E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), the station’s owner, is eventually convinced to give Green a chance. Green quickly becomes a counter-culture sensation and must come to terms with his potential fame.
Petey Green was the right man at the right time for WOL. Green first started broadcasting in 1966, America was divided and people were fed up with the establishment. This was the perfect environment for a rebel like Green. Green’s predecessor was a mild mannered and fake sounding and inoffensive personality whose show was clearly targeted at an older white demographic. Green had the audacity to simply say what was on his mind in his own flamboyant way. He was willing to get under people’s skin, he was the original shock-jock. Green would open his show by saying “I’ll tell it to the hot, I’ll tell it to the cold. I’ll tell it to the young, I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’. This is Petey Greene’s Washington.” Green spoke to the black community at a time when it desperately needed an authentic voice. Green was broadcasting the night news broke of Martin Luther King’s assassination and helped calm the city with his broadcast and at a James Brown concert the next night.
The main attraction here, by far, is the excellent performance by Don Cheadle. This may just be the best performance yet from this reliable character actor. The role allows him to have certain pathos while still being a very comical entity. Green is electrifying whenever he’s on the air and it’s easy to see why a city was captivated by his outrageous personality. Cheadle talks and acts much differently in the movie than he does in reality, the actor disappears into the role. The supporting cast is also solid, Ejiofor is solid as Green’s friend and business partner. Taraji P. Henson make a definite impression as Green’s long term girlfriend Vernell Watson and Martin Sheen is memorable as the stations older white owner. Cedric the Entertainer also makes as surprise addition to the ensemble as late night DJ “Nighthawk” Bob Terry.
The movie’s problem however is that it works better as a comedic romp through the radio industry than it does as a biographical drama. The movie begins to fall apart in its third act when it falls back on traditional biopic patterns. Petey Green had a personality that is very fun to watch but his life simply didn’t have the same gravitas as figures like Malcolm X and Gandhi, and he really can’t support the kind of heavyweight importance the movie places on him in the third act. Green’s disinterest in fame and somewhat rocky friendship with Hughes isn’t an entirely awful plot development; it simply isn’t as interesting or dramatic as the type of material that was featured in biopics of people like the above mentioned figures or even of someone like Johnny Cash. After Green has achieved success as a DJ the movie runs out of places to go and suddenly tries to cover a good twenty years in a short amount of time even though the preceding movie seemed to cover a only two or three.
Despite the film’s third act problems, the sheer joy of the movies first two thirds or so should not be understated. Every word that comes out of Petey Green’s mouth feels like a very memorable quote. This flamboyant figure is very fun to watch especially as portrayed by Don Cheadle who is giving Oscar caliber work here. Talk to Me is so good for so long and Cheadle is so great that the movie is still worth seeing despite its problems; just don’t expect it to stand up next to other, better, biopics.
*** out of four