Talk to Me
This review was written for the festival screening of "Talk to Me."
Again demonstrating why he's one of the most versatile actors around, Don Cheadle gives another prize-worthy performance as Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr., the irrepressible radio DJ whose keepin'-it-real style made him a trusted voice on the airwaves during the turbulent late '60s and early '70s.
While his fearlessly robust performance absolutely galvanizes "Talk to Me," it's not the only thing that makes Kasi Lemmons' third feature such a pleasure to take in. Similarly commanding performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and "Hustle & Flow's" Taraji P. Henson, plus an energetic script by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, vividly bring this biopic to life.
Following its Los Angeles Film Festival kick-off, the Focus Features film will be opening in limited release July 13, but enthusiastic word-of-mouth could ensure that audiences will tune in right up to the start of awards season.
We first see Petey Greene spinning the Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke platters within the confines of Virginia's Lorton Prison, where he puts his "Ph.D. in poverty" to use telling it like it is to his fellow inmates.
It's there he meets the decidedly buttoned-down Dewey Hughes (the always intriguing Ejiofor), the program director for Washington, D.C.'s R&B station, WOL-AM, who's visiting his estranged, incarcerated brother (Mike Epps).
Pestering Hughes for an on-air job when he gets out of the can, Petey and his bubbly, take-no-prisoners girlfriend (a terrific Henson) make good on their threat to show up at his decidedly corporate station one day, refusing to take no for an answer.
Eventually wearing Hughes down enough to give him a shot behind the mike, Petey and his plain-speaking style instantly light up the phone lines at the station, where WOL owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen), knowing a ratings-booster when he sees one, hands Greene the coveted morning shift.
But Petey proves to be more than just a colorful radio personality. In the aftermath of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination he was the calming voice of reason for legions of listeners seeking immediate justice.
Looking to tap into his potential, Hughes becomes his manager, landing Petey his own TV show as well as stand-up gigs leading to an ill-fated appearance on "The Tonight Show."
Petey's subsequent downward spiral is a trajectory well-traveled by the biopic, and although it robs the film of that spirited comic zip found in the picture's first half, director Lemmons orchestrates the tonal shift with a refreshingly minimal amount of purposefulness, working from an effervescent script by Genet (whose father was Dewey Hughes) and Famuyiwa ("The Wood").
In addition to mining exceptional performances from Cheadle, Ejiofor and Henson, who creates another indelible performance here, Lemmons does well by bright turns from Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer and real-life husband Vondie Curtis Hall, the latter two planning a pair of WOR on-air personalities.
Also keeping it real are those rich period touches contributed by production designer Warren Alan Young and costume designer Gersha Phillips, whose fabulous creations for Henson appear to have come directly from the blaxploitation attic.
Completing the desired effect is Terence Blanchard's mood-altering, jazzy score and a Top 40s worth of golden soul oldies, highlighted by Cooke's ever-poignant "A Change Is Gonna Come."
TALK TO ME
A Focus Features and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment presentation of a Mark Gordon Co./Pelagius Films production
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriters: Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa
Producers: Mark Gordon, Sidney Kimmel, Joe Fries, Josh McLaughlin
Executive producers: William Horberg, J. Miles Dale, Joey Rappa, Bruce Toll, Don Cheadle
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Production designer: Warren Alan Young
Music: Terence Blanchard
Costume designer: Gersha Phillips
Editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Petey Greene: Don Cheadle
Dewey Hughes: Chiwetel Ejiofor
"Nighthawk" Bob Terry: Cedric the Entertainer
Vernell Watson: Taraji P. Henson
Milo Hughes: Mike Epps
Sunny Jim Kelsey: Vondie Curtis Hall
E. G. Sonderling: Martin Sheen
Running time -- 118 minutes
MPAA rating: R