Back in the days when radio was still a relevant medium, before technological innovation and corporate consolidation combined to push it to the margins of influence, local disc jockeys were more than just spinners of records; they were tastemakers, activists, community leaders and, occasionally, cultural icons.
In her new biopic, Talk to Me, director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) pays homage to that forgotten era as she chronicles the life of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr., a Washington, D.C., deejay whose brash "tell it like it is" style preceded the likes of Howard Stern and Don Imus by decades. An ex-con whose streetsmarts compensated for his limited education, Greene rose to become one of the D.C. most popular media personalities before dying of cancer in 1984, at the age of 55.
Playing the part of Greene in Talk to Me is the always outstanding Don Cheadle, and it's ultimately his fine performance, as well as those of co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Taraji P. Henson, that rescue Lemmons's film from drowning in a sea of clichés. And there are so many of them at work in Talk to Me -- the young man struggling to overcome a legacy of poverty and incarceration, the visionary artist who refuses to compromise his principals, a successful career sabotaged by drugs and alcohol, etc. -- that it's difficult to keep track of them all.
Not all of it is Lemmons's fault. In many ways, it's a sad testament to the preponderance of mediocre biopics over the last decade. Greene's story fits so neatly into the archetype of the flawed genius plagued by compulsive self-destructiveness that it's easy to forget that he was a real-life personality. Thankfully, Cheadle is there to remind us, via a lively performance brimming with humor and pathos, that Greene was more than just the one-dimensional creation of some overpaid screenwriter.
Ironically, it's when director Lemmons attempts to veer away from cliché that Talk to Me ultimately falls apart entirely. About two-thirds of the way into the story, when Greene's life appears poised to follow the standard "rise and fall" biopic storyline, the film switches gears abruptly and the focus shifts to Ejiofor's character, Greene's manager Dewey Hughes. Just when we've become attached to Greene and invested in his story, he's taken away from us. Ejiofor does a great job as a straight-laced suit who allowed his corporate aspirations to stifle his own dreams of becoming a deejay, but when he doesn't share the frame with Cheadle, Talk to Me loses its momentum. And when Greene returns for the film's closing moments, it's too little, too late.