By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2007)
“Wake up, goddammit!” As far as daybreak salutations go, that may not be as sanguine as, let’s say, “goo-oood morning, VietNAAAM!”, but for D.C. radio personality Ralph “Petey” Greene, it was all part of “keepin’ it real” for the better part of two decades.In the new biopic, Talk to Me, director Kasi Lemmons tackles the true story of the ex-con who went on to become an immensely popular DJ, community activist, comedian and TV show host in the Washington D.C. market from the mid 1960s up until his death in 1984.
Don Cheadle (who co-produced) delivers another amazing performance…and it’s a good thing too, because it is the saving grace in a film that might otherwise play out like a glorified episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. His portrayal of the fast-talking, streetwise Greene grabs your attention from the get go, as we find him working his first DJ gig-broadcasting live and direct from the warden’s office over a jailhouse P.A. system. Judging from his fellow inmates’ reactions, it’s clear that Greene has a natural gift, not only for being entertaining, but articulating what his audience is thinking as well.
In 1966, Greene is released, and through a series of machinations (and sheer chutzpah) manages to ingratiate himself with Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), program director of Washington D.C. soul station WOL. Against his better judgment, Hughes puts his job on the line and gives the motor-mouthed hustler a shot in the air chair.
Greene’s on-air debut is dramatized in a somewhat apocryphal manner (did he really open the mike and refer to Berry Gordy as a “pimp” right out of the starting gate, much to Management’s chagrin?) but the scene is representational of a pivotal point in radio history where some DJs were transitioning from the superficial Wolfman Jack/Murray the K/Cousin Brucie school to becoming “real” personalities who expressed an idiosyncratic world view.
Before long, Greene’s candid ruminations on the social issues of the day, as well as the urban black experience in general strikes a chord with the D.C. radio audience. Dewey Hughes soon senses an even larger potential for Greene to parlay his talents into stand up comedy and TV as well, offering to manage his career.
After a promising start, the 3rd act gets bogged down in tired VH-1’s Behind the Music-style clichés that have plunged other potentially great films into banality (Bird and Ray come to mind). The film is ultimately about yet another gifted performer squandering his or her potential through substance abuse and/or self sabotaging behavior. Haven’t we suffered through enough of these?
I would have liked to have seen a bit more attention to detail in the depiction of the radio station milieu. I admit this is a pet peeve because I have worked in the radio business since 1974, so I tend get nit-picky . And if I see one more movie set at a radio station that features a scene where a DJ barricades himself inside the studio and continues to talk while Management and/or security guards struggle to force the door open, I’ll rip off my headphones and run screaming into the sunset. It just doesn’t happen in real life (that often).
The supporting cast is good. Taraji P. Henson portrays Greene’s long suffering girlfriend, Vernell Watson, with aplomb (and a nod to Pam Grier). Cedric the Entertainer hams it up as late night DJ “Nighthawk” Bob Terry (recalling Venus Flytrap on WKRP). Also with Martin Sheen, who feels a bit squandered here as a cartoon GM who gets to fume and sputter and pound the studio window whenever Greene’s antics get too risqué and scream cornball lines like “What in the blue blazes do you think you’re doing!?”.
Still the film is worth watching for Cheadle and Ejiofor’s tandem performances. They are both charismatic and talented actors, with an onscreen chemistry that could turn them into a Newman-Redford sized juggernaut, should they decide to work together again (hopefully, with a better script next time out).