Talk to Me (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Kasi Lemmons
Talk to Me is the story of Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), a Washington D.C. radio DJ and ex-con who brought wry social commentary through street parlance in the late 60's, and with James Brown helped quell riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the film he's guided by a radio station exec, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who later becomes his manager and attempts to transform Greene from a straight-talking voice of the people into a Lenny Bruce-style comic and finally a local TV talk show host, greeting minor celebrities and politicians like a rough-around-the-edges Johnny Carson, Hughes' idol. But all Greene wants to do is spin records; as he tells Hughes early on, being a con and being a DJ are the only talents he has.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons with a smooth, sometimes sensual touch, and sporadically very funny, this biopic is what is commonly called an "actor's film," which means that if you were to replace the key actors with lesser ones, the flaws would be all the more apparent. Who doesn't like Don Cheadle (Boogie Nights, Traffic)? And Chiwetel Ejiofor, a standout supporting character in Inside Man, gets a wonderful chance to display all of his talents in a central role here. There's also Taraji P. Henson as Vernell, Greene's girlfriend, who aggressively supports her man, and aggressively gets her revenge when he strays. All three are amazing, and worth the glowing praise the film's receiving. But on the whole, Talk to Me suffers from cliches handed down from the biopic genre. While it's entertaining to see Greene and Hughes stage a siege at WOR radio, barricading the doors so that Greene can have a shot at proving himself on the radio, the payoff--gee, those people aren't calling to complain, they LOVE Petey!--is a predictable groaner. Too many of the film's plot points unspool in this fashion, hitting the notes you expect as the necessary linking material between more interesting scenes. Screenwriters Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa also hammer home their central messages way too often, until the film finally takes on a patronizing tone. Most crucially, although the relationship between Hughes and Greene is at the center of the film, it's treated with such armchair psychology that you crave a more complex, nuanced treatment.
Still, there's so much here that sparks that you might wilfully ignore those flaws. Apart from the performances, the film boasts Kasi Lemmons' loving gaze. Look at the shot that comes right after Greene leaves the booth after his MLK broadcast. After the congratulations, the crew--who was locked in a physical fight just before learning of MLK's death--now moves as a fluid unit, one body after the other passing almost sensuously before the camera while the Sam Cooke song plays, and finally the camera turns to catch Martin Sheen's station manager, Sonderling, breaking down in tears in the hallway. The mise-en-scene, the movement of the camera, the warmth of the performances, all comes together into a visual poetry. There are other moments like this in the film, and a tribute to the skills of Lemmons, who also directed the acclaimed Eve's Bayou. Even if she could sustain moment after moment like this, she'd still be saddled with a script that hits its marks like a child whacking away at a toy xylophone.
If you're curious, and you love the performers, it's a film worth seeing. Plus the music is great, and there's an amazing James Brown impersonator. Like the film itself, you know he's not the real thing, but he knows the moves.