Compromised by its biopic formula but buoyed and charged by its central character, “Talk to Me” is a hard-to-resist visit to meaningful times, as occupied and personified by Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, the ex-con radio star who, in the 1960s, invigorated a community. This movie may not always know what to do with Petey, but you couldn’t ask for a brighter mix of charisma and character.
Set during two of the 20th century’s most superb stretches — the civil-rights heyday and that miracle of nonconformity known as the 1960s — the comedy-drama covers nearly two decades in the life of Petey Greene (Don Cheadle), beginning when he’s a brash inmate spinning vinyl in prison. Following his release, he persuades Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the straitlaced program director at Washington, D.C., soul station WOL, to hire him.
A legend is born. Petey’s streetwise commentary, natural edge and “Ph.D. in poverty” connect with a community aching for a fresh pulse. The switchboard lights up with so many call-ins that even propriety-minded station chief E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen) approves.
Until his death in 1984, despite battles with alcoholism, Petey serves as a powerful voice for the black community. His achievements include an eloquent, effective call for peace during the riots sparked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Basically, this is standard showbiz biodrama. Though competently and entertainingly directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”), it is too routine, with its rags-to-riches arc, its loyal-girlfriend (Taraji P. Henson) ingredient, and even an ominous cough delivered by Petey, to triumph story-wise.
But some affecting character workings exist. Screenwriters Michael Genet (son of Dewey Hughes) and Rick Famuyiwa sharply present Petey not just as a vibrant personality but as a complex, courageous cultural force who, unlike today’s popular loudmouths, isn’t afraid to ruffle sensibilities. Cheadle, the movie’s top asset, conveys these qualities with electricity and dimension. You grasp what Petey Greene meant to people.
The film also benefits from Ejiofor’s Dewey, one of the most satisfying supporting characters you’ll ever see. As these two conversely tempered but similarly striving men click, their joint dynamics produce a substantial emotional reality that allows some of the movie’s biggest fabrications (including an appearance by Petey on the Johnny Carson show) to feel true.
Also noteworthy are the period tones that the atmospherically inclined Lemmons creates.
The soundtrack contains numerous fitting selections, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Talk to Me ***
Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen
Written by Michael Genet, Rick Famuyiwa
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes