Twenty years after his death, native Washingtonians still reminisce about Petey Greene’s candor and eccentricities, though most never thought they’d see his story on the big screen.
But now, “Talk to Me” — taking its title from the rapid-fire way Mr. Greene answered phone calls on his show — opens nationwide in theaters today with an A-list cast.
Instead of concentrating on the otherworldly and mysterious tenor of her earlier films, director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “The Caveman’s Valentine”) serves up “Talk to Me” straight with no chaser — much as Mr. Greene lived his life. We see the talk show host (an absorbing portrayal by Oscar-nominee Don Cheadle) as the consummate hustler in the District’s Lorton Reformatory during the turbulent civil rights era of the mid-1960s, when his gift of gab as a disc jockey on the prison’s radio station and a carefully engineered plot to “rescue” a suicidal inmate help to bring about his early release.
It is here that Miss Lemmons begins her tale — bypassing Mr. Greene’s childhood in Georgetown, U.S. Army service and drug abuse — showcasing his life through his complex two-decade dance with Dewey Hughes (British-born star Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Love, Actually” and “Dirty Pretty Things”), the program director for WOL Radio.
There are good times and bad shared by the ex-con and the media-savvy Mr. Hughes, who becomes friend, business manager and unwitting Svengali to the streetwise Mr. Greene. Initially rebuffed for his on-air crudeness by WOL’s owner, Egmont Sonderling (“The West Wing’s” Martin Sheen), Petey soon wins over the broadcast mogul when thousands of listeners begin flooding the station’s switchboard with calls to express their approval of his gritty style. Suddenly, he’s a media darling, a glaring reality that doesn’t sit well with the station’s established DJs: upbeat morning man Sunny Jim Kelsey (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and certified prima donna Bob “the Nighthawk” Terry (an unusually reserved Cedric the Entertainer in his best big-screen performance yet).
When the Capital City erupts into riots following the assassination of the Martin Luther King in April 1968, it’s Petey who’s summoned to take the stage with “Godfather of Soul” James Brown to quell the masses in one of the film’s most riveting scenes.
Yet, Mr. Greene is far from perfect, and Miss Lemmons doesn’t flinch from his liberal use of the “n” word, womanizing, love of the bottle, egocentricity and vulnerability. In what should have been a moment of triumph, Petey self-destructs when his biggest moment in life arrives — an appearancebefore millions of viewers(carefully engineered by Dewey) on NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. The director handles the delicate moment with aplomb as Petey, perfectly content to be the big fish in a little pond, is left spiritually broken in the aftermath.
From there, however, “Talk to Me” coasts to an anticlimactic end, with the two men individually finding solace and going their separate ways.
But that’s a minor quibble.
Along with standout performances by her two male leads (Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. Cheadle, who served as one of the film’s executive producers), Miss Lemmons also coaxes a fetching turn from D.C. native Taraji P. Henson (“Hustle & Flow”) as Petey’s flamboyant and much-put-upon girlfriend, Vernell. “Talk to Me” also boasts a stellar soundtrack powered by several funky evergreens from the old Stax label vault that include Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” Eddie Floyd's “Knock on Wood” and Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”
Who can complain with a lineup like that?
THREE AND ONE-HALF STARS TITLE: “Talk to Me” RATING: Rated R for profanity, adult situations and some sexual content CREDITS: Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Screenplay by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa. RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes WEBSITE: www.focusfeatures.com/talktome MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS