Talk to Me Movie Review
The first, Leon Ichaso's El Cantante, scrubs away crucial details when recollecting the life of salsa singer Hector Lavoe, leaving an empty shell that begs for further insight. But Talk to Me takes the opposite approach, constructing such a complete image of proud and passionate radio host Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene that we immediately understand why the deep flaws in his personality could only have led to his downfall.
Greene started small but grew big -- bigger than he wanted, in fact -- and Kasi Lemmons' fiery Talk documents chunks of the man's professional life that begins with him entertaining fellow inmates at the Lorton Reformatory prison a few miles south of Washington, D.C. A life like Greene's holds countless anecdotes. Lemmons chooses two that lend perspective to the deejay's journey: the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King and Greene's eventual appearance on The Tonight Show.
His break arrived years before, in the late '60s. Right as program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) requires an infusion of new blood at Washington talk station WOL-AM, "Petey" Greene (Don Cheadle) flows onto the scene. Greene's voice speaks for the listeners, and he knows the value that brings to the struggling station. This allows Cheadle to glide with a confidence, and arrogance, normally attributed to Muhammad Ali. Watching Cheadle in this role, it's also clear that should Hollywood ever attempt a Richard Pryor movie, Cheadle will be essential to the film's success.
But Talk isn't a one-man show. Over a pool table in a pivotal scene, Dewey drops his pedigreed façade and proves he's Petey's equal. Maybe even his superior. Ejiofor does the same, matching Cheadle's unfiltered spark flash for flash. Which performer emerges on top? Who cares? It's a joy to see these talents dance toe-to-toe. They are the brightest stars in a formidable cast that includes Martin Sheen, Cedric the Entertainer and an extraordinary Taraji P. Henson. Equally impressive is the unmistakable work of musician Terrence Blanchard, who compiles a scorching soundtrack of '60s and '70s funk.
Movies about flighty characters need sturdy branches on which to land, and Talk receives one when an assassin's bullet claims the life of MLK. The civil rights leader's murder gives Greene a purpose and provides Talk with a podium past the simple story of a brassy ex-convict throwing his attitude around.
Talk does not pretend Greene was a good man, just a human one. Lemmons shows him playing the victim, and bullying those that stand in his way. Screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyima must not have received the official memo that society is retiring the controversial "N" word, because Greene spreads the language around like fertilizer on a manicured lawn. But Talk takes us back to better times, when broadcasters dared to speak to their audience with honesty, and dedicated listeners responded in kind.
Talk to the hair.