Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 04 November 2007
Categories The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival
Though undoubtedly an offshoot of the rock ‘n’ roll biopic (itself a subsection of the wider artist biopic genre), the DJ movie has its own unique set of rules and clichés. The film will open with the sound of a needle hitting a record, an audio channel crackling and a microphone being tapped. Our hero will be a dyed-in-the-wool rebel, he’ll clash with the stuffy top brass, and his refusal to bow to pressure and self-censor will inevitably land him in hot water. There’ll be a montage of engrossed listeners gathered around the radio to hear the honest truth being spoken, interspersed with shots of the DJ strutting his stuff, spinning platters and swinging the microphone about on a giant, hinged metal arm. This sequence will almost certainly be soundtracked by one of James Brown’s bigger hits. Our hero will have a tempestuous relationship with a devoted woman, and his increasing fame will lead to outside temptation and, eventually, drug or alcohol abuse. But by the end lessons will be learned, bosses charmed, girlfriends’ tempers soothed, habits kicked and legends born.
Talk to Me fulfils every one of these requirements to the letter, feeling at times like a compendium of genre formulae, drawing liberally from, among others, American Hot Wax, Talk Radio, Good Morning, Vietnam, Private Parts, even Pump Up The Volume. But it reworks these clichés with such passion, such energy, that it actually manages to turn this very familiarity into a strength. We’re left eagerly anticipating the next predictable plot twist, toetapping to those inevitable James Brown numbers and waiting to see which authority figures our hero will clash with next.
That hero is Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Greene Jr., a brash, loudmouth ex-convict turned DJ whose popularity on Washington radio in the late 60s and early 70s almost turned him into a worldwide star. Learning the ropes on prison radio during a 5-10 stretch for armed robbery, Petey catches the ear of programmer Dewey Hughes, a buttoned-down executive looking for new talent, but frightened by Petey’s confrontational style. But in time honoured fashion, once Dewey breaks the rules and gets Petey on the air the audience are captivated, the money-men soothed, and Greene becomes an overnight sensation. This leads to the inevitable breakdown: booze is consumed in ever greater quantities, the FCC is breathing down the boss’s neck, and Petey’s long suffering (and amazingly big haired) girlfriend Vernell catches him in bed with another woman, and breaks a bottle over his head. Meanwhile Dewey is scheming to make Petey a big star, getting him his own TV show and sending him out on tour as a standup. But then a very public collapse on the Tonight Show brings their friendship, and Petey’s career, to a grinding halt.
Watching Talk to Me, one begins to wonder how many more 20th century heroes are waiting in the shadows for their moment of cinematic remembrance. Petey’s story is an extraordinary one, from a prison cell to nationwide exposure in less than a decade, a larger-than-life voice of the people. And although the script condenses Petey’s story and lends it wider historical context, if anything Kasi Lemmons and her screenwriters Michael Genet (son of Dewey Hughes) and Rick Famuyiwa undersell Petey’s significance, saying nothing of his self-started Efforts for Ex-Convicts charity, his local Emmys, or his work with the YMCA. They prefer instead to focus on his career in the spotlight: this is very much a film ‘inspired’ by true events, and probably more entertaining for it.
As Petey, Don Cheadle is reliably terrific, bouncing off the walls and letting rip at every opportunity. There’s nothing particularly new about the character – he’s essentially Richard Pryor with a dose of Howard Stern, though better dressed than either – but in Cheadle’s hands he becomes easy and likeable, and there are moments of real pathos, as Petey feels himself starting to crack under the pressure of unwanted fame. But it’s his relationship with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Dewey Hughes that is the focus of the film, and provides its clearest insights. At the start of the film Hughes is a company man through and through, interested in civil rights and empowerment but unwilling to lay himself or his career on the line. He finds his voice in the community through Petey, and in return hopes to give his friend the world, picturing a stratospheric rise to the top, which for Dewey means talk shows and movies. But Petey is happy where he is, in a Washington radio booth. This exploration of a man largely uninterested in fame is one of the film’s few elements of originality, and it’s beautifully played out. Ejiofor is magnetic as Hughes, the suit who gradually reveals his true colours.
As exemplified by these two central performances, Talk to Me is one of those films that gets every detail right, and makes it look effortless. The incidental cast are all perfectly chosen, from Martin Sheen’s executive-with-a-conscience studio boss to Cedric The Entertainer as the sleazy, self absorbed Barry White-alike DJ Nighthawk. The period recreation is flawless, the tone and style reminiscent both of Mario Van Peebles excellent, underrated Baaaadass, and PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights, films which capture the strife and electricity of 60s/70s urban America. The photography is traditional and unspectacular, but Lemmons directs with real power, keeping her camera prowling and her characters on the move, infusing the entire film with a restless, mesmerizing energy. And the music is perfectly chosen, a blend of well-known funk-pop hits and more obscure soul numbers, culminating in a heartbreaking employment of Sam Cooke’s Change Gonna Come: like the film itself, clichéd, but still wonderful.
Talk to Me is that rare and precious thing—a film which sets out its goals in a clear and precise fashion, and then proceeds to achieve each and every one of them without breaking a sweat. It could be argued that the film is unambitious, and perhaps it is. It’s also a little less emotionally truthful than it could be, falling back on the obvious line or gesture one too many times. But there’s a real joy in seeing a film which knows what it wants and exactly how to get it, barely putting a foot wrong from crackling start to joyous, celebratory finish.
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