Talk to Me

I’m not sure the world was really clamoring for a film about Petey Greene. And I’m not sure the world really needs one. But man, I’m so glad they made one. Unlike so many tired and formulaic biopics — which all seem cut from the same generic swath, proceed along the same rise and fall arc, and end up being more like coronations than celebrations — Talk to Me is unpredictable and fresh, alive in a way so few of films of these ilk are. It is a living breathing life, of both a man, and his era and place.

Greene is never regarded as anyone other than normal guy from the streets, who just tells it like it is, who speaks the people’s language and had the same breaks – both good and bad – as everyone else. No larger than life colossus here, striding across the cultural landscape, in need of hagiography, and thank God for that

For those of you not in the know (and I’m guessing that’s the majority of people who either haven’t seen the film already or didn’t live in Washington DC during the ’60s and ’70s), Petey Greene was a contentious and strident DJ and talk show host on WOL 1450 AM, a top rated R&B and community affairs station in Washington, DC. As played by Don Cheadle (in his loosest, most confident, and best performance to date), he is a quick-witted, highly opinionated voice of the people, unafraid to speak his mind on all manner of subjects, most of them not quite fit for radio of the era.

Having honed his DJ skills in prison (doing 10 years for armed robbery, which he managed to get reduced by staging a “media event” in prison orchestrated to impress the warden), Greene figures he’d be a natural for a gig at a real station when he gets out. Talking his way into a job, and taken underwing by producer Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the film’s other great performance) against his, and the station head’s, better judgment, Greene is an immediate hit — phone lines are flooded during his shows with subject matter that ranged all over the place from local politics to music to race issues. His success is easy to pinpoint — charismatic, loquacious, intelligent and genuine, he speaks the audience’s language. His mantra and sign-off, repeated twice in the film, speaks for itself : “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'”.

As the story progresses, Hughes tries to parlay Greene’s success into other media — stand up tours and a local TV talk show — and then move him from the local level to national. Initially going along with his friend, Greene becomes increasingly disillusioned, scared that he’s losing touch with what makes Petey Greene, Petey Greene. To him, the whole thing has become a big joke, an exploitation of race – he’s nothing but a clown. During a disastrous appearance on the Tonight Show which marks the end of the Greene/Hughes partnership, Greene looks out on the studio crowd and derisively spits out “I look out here and all I see is a room full of white folks waiting for some nigger jokes.” In the end, Greene won’t play the game with Hughes, won’t sell out to the man, and sinks back into obscurity, even as Hughes goes on to achieve success himself at WOL in Greene’s former slot.

Okay, so maybe I was wrong. Talk to Me does follow a sort of typical rise and fall arc of biopics – maybe it’s unavoidable. But for its first half, at least, Talk to Me doesn’t feel like it’s straitjacketed in any way. Vibrant, exuberant, colorful and irresistibly alive, it is a celebration of a lifestyle as much as a life – the thumping funk, soul and R&B of the late ’60s, early ’70s; the wonderfully flared and over the top outfits; the loud mouthed shit talking. It is about new freedom and new awareness, of the lifeblood of a community coursing over airwaves, something which I think is hopelessly lost to us forever now with the fragmenting of media and the devolution of talk radio into screaming matches and political myopia. Talk to Me is about love of place, of home. It is about urban Washington, the real Washington of the people who live there, in the poor sections, in the ghettos.

And the turning point of the film, and its best moment, comes when the community threatens to consume itself in the conflagration following the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Witnessing the chaos and flames erupting around the station, Greene quickly gets on the air and has a marathon talk session well into the morning, trying to mollify and comfort the city, imploring them not to turn against their home town. Here, his talk nearly ascends to poetry, as he tries to articulate the shock and devastation caused by King’s death.

It is his, and the film’s, defining moment, and from here Talk to Me turns more serious, tracing Greene’s rapid rise under the watchful guidance of Hughes. And here, the film becomes as much about Hughes’ ambition as Greene’s disillusionment. It’s not as fun (as well it shouldn’t be) and the sort of freewheeling feeling of the film drains out of it as it settles into…well, not exactly a rut, but predictable channels. Still, there’s no dampening of Cheadle or Ejiofor, both of whom carry the film even as it starts to falter during its home stretch. The denouement, with Hughes giving the eulogy at Greene’s astoundingly well attended public funeral (somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 people allegedly attended), is inevitable, but I guess is the safe play in the end.

Ultimately, I don’t even know that Talk to Me has anything substantial to impart — there are no great life lessons here, no real revelations, unless you count such obvious tropes as staying true to yourself, never selling out, and always speaking the truth above all else. It’s not a great movie, though it’s a great entertainment, bouncing along before falling apart due to lack of nerve or imagination or both. And maybe it should be celebrated as much as for what it gets wrong as what it gets right — just like life itself.

Talk to Me’s DVD release is an obvious rush job, with a disappointing paucity of extras. Some sort of archival video or audio footage would have been welcome. Perhaps it’s for a dearth of material, though it does exist — footage of Greene is floating around on Youtube. Or maybe it’s some copyright issue. I don’t know.

I do know that the two featurettes here aren’t quite up to snuff. The first is mostly cast and crew talking about how great Greene was, how seminal his influence on community and the evolution of talk radio (Howard Stern cites Greene as a major influence, for whatever that’s worth). The second feature is about costume and set design, and is fun if mostly forgettable. A handful of deleted scenes round out the release. I doubt there will be much demand for a future rerelease of a more comprehensive DVD set, which is a shame, since if anyone deserves a proper supplementary treatment, it’s Petey Greene

RATING 6 / 10