Don Cheadle gets a role to shake loose and revel in with Petey Greene, the loose-cannon deejay hero of Kasi Lemmons’ energetic biopic “Talk to Me,” which alternates too deliberately between jaunty comedy and serious message-making. The more Petey is allowed to live and breathe as a ’60s streetwise hustler who literally barges his way into a D.C. radio station, the better pic handles its various agendas. But as Petey becomes a symbol of black liberation, the movie turns obvious and parched. Focus’ hopes for a summer counter-programmer will likely be only half-realized, with mild B.O. and fair ancillary biz.
A distinct shift from Lemmons’ more classically mounted “Eve’s Bayou,” “Talk to Me” displays the helmer’s range and taste for everything from broad ghetto comedy to two-hander drama to period storytelling. But this also exemplifies how pic juggles too many things at once, compounded by the paradox that the lighter passages actually carry more substance than the overly emphatic ones.
WOL-AM program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in characteristically superb form) first encounters Petey in the prison where Dewey’s brother Milo (Mike Epps) is doing time, and where Petey does a daily in-house, free-form broadcast, dropping F-bombs right, left and center. Dewey suggests Petey look him up when he gets out, and, soon, Petey, ever the operator, uses his close ties to the warden to get an early release.
Assigned by owner E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) to revive the station’s sagging ratings and tired pop profile, Dewey decides morning guy Sunny Jim Kelsey (Vondie Curtis Hall) has to go, but he doesn’t count on Petey bursting into the station with his loud and flamboyant g.f. Vernell (Taraji P. Henson).
When Petey’s attempts to go through the front door fail, he stages a one-man picket of the station as “unfair,” embarrassing Dewey in the eyes of the community and leading to his supposed big break. When Petey shows talent but comes off too raw and untrained, this particular American Dream would appear to be over.
Cheadle and Ejiofor carry the movie on their shoulders with gusto. Their valiant efforts during the sequences when Petey manages to get back on WOR (against Sonderling’s express orders) and is a smash with listeners rep a fine example of great performances covering severe script issues.
Early on, Lemmons suggests radio broadcasting is barely contained chaos, with Dewey as the straight “Negro” keeping it together and Petey as the emerging face of a freer black-is-beautiful ethos. Together, according to “Talk to Me,” they nearly revolutionize not just the airwaves, but D.C. itself. Petey’s running monologue of streetwise soul and justice connects with locals, which proves to be a blessing when he’s able to cool community anger and fears of a riot in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Pic is considerably less assured during these and other, grimmer sections, not only because the riot never feels like a real danger, but also because the shifting focus — as Dewey tries to steer Petey’s career into a multimedia business, culminating in an appearance on “The Tonight Show” — is excessively on-the-nose, the stuff of trite showbiz tragedy.
Rarely, if ever, has Cheadle seemed so unleashed and uncontained as he does inside Petey’s persona, playing him as a real-life id running rampant through the proper channels of pop culture. The funniest aspect of Cheadle’s grand, profane portrayal is how his Petey openly announces himself as a con, seducing Dewey and the audience, and then looks shocked at his own success. This crafty bit of cocky vulnerability reps a truly astonishing perf.
A weaker actor playing Dewey would have merely reacted to Petey, and, indeed, as written, much of Dewey’s role is set in Petey’s long shadow. But Ejiofor is far too potent to stick to such parameters, crafting a character of fascinating depth and contradictions. Support from Sheen and a brief appearance by Cedric the Entertainer as a WOL deejay are solid, while Henson as Petey’s g.f. with attitude is too much for the room.
Early, mid- and late ’60s periods are rendered reasonably well by Warren Alan Young’s production design, but Lemmons’ two top collaborators are cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Arnaud Desplechin’s regular ace d.p.) and music supervisor Barry Cole. Latter constructs a blow-out soundtrack of great tunes from the era, including dazzling use of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” and both Les McCann’s original and Meshell Ndegeocello’s fresh cover of Gene McDaniel’s immortal “Compared to What,” which the movie turns into an anthem for Petey.