July 9, 2007

Talking the Talk

Is the biopic over? Talk to Me's Don Cheadle on life, liberties and pursuing a hero

By S.T. VanAirsdale

On the air: Don Cheadle as DJ Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, the subject of the new film Talk to Me (Photo: Focus Features)

Don Cheadle shrugged. "Obviously any time you do a movie that's based on a real character over a series of years, things..." said the actor, who portrays the incendiary Washington, D.C., folk-hero DJ Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene in the new film Talk to Me (opening Friday in New York). He indulged the briefest of pauses, shrugged again.

Rationalizing biopics will do that to a man.

"You're trying to compress it into 90 minutes," Cheadle continued, enlightening The Reeler on how Greene's real-life, last-minute Tonight Show cancellation evolved for the movies into an on-air meltdown live from New York. "There are going to be truncations, there are going to be elisions. Things are going to be put together or omitted. You're just trying to keep the spirit of the film alive. And though that exact scene didn't happen on the Johnny Carson show, that scene did happen backstage. It did happen in the wings of the show. They actually did get into a fistfight, and they did both get arrested. All of that's actually true. But it's what you come up against when you come up against true events -- real events that happen historically. There's always going to a version of what it is when you do it as a film. That's just the nature of the beast."

"They" are Greene and Dewey Hughes, the radio station program director whose dice-roll on the ex-con propelled each to glory at WOL-AM in the late 1960s. As played by Chiwetel Ojiofor, Hughes is the classic narrative foil to Cheadle's smooth-talker; literally a corporate suit, he's all calculus to Greene's street smarts. The two share instinct, however, the chemistry of which drives Talk to Me through its sluggish period conventions and into the slightly more dignified realm of buddy-movie showcase. Their trajectories collide, interweave, glow and burn out, mirroring their era and, to a lesser degree, their real stories. (Cancer claimed Greene in 1984; Hughes and his then-wife Catherine bought WOL in 1980, nurturing it into the flagship of the Radio One Network.)

Which isn't to say Talk to Me is a misfire. Director Kasi Lemmons said she approached the film as she would a love story, and an authentic romance -- a courtship, even an obsession -- exists in the dramatic blueprint of the Greene/Hughes partnership. Hughes' makeover of his star DJ to achieve brand-name status on television and beyond reflects the tactics of emotionally involved managers throughout time. In his first WOL broadcast, Greene calls Motown boss Berry Gordy a "pimp"; for both institutional and symbolic reasons, Hughes must object. Greene's deep engagement with D.C.'s black community culminates here in an impromptu broadcast following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Lemmons and her fine cinematographer St├ęphane Fontaine shoot the cycle almost exclusively from Hughes' point of view. The drama is in his investment.

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It's a long way from the pranky, wholly contrived Keystone Kops routine Cheadle and Ejiofor pull off to hijack the airwaves after Greene's wobbly AM debut, or the histrionic sass manufactured between Cheadle and his paramour Vernell Watson (an overboard Taraji P. Henson, chewing on every prop but her own Afro wig). But neither Cheadle nor Lemmons said they thought twice about exercising such liberties in the name of storytelling. "I think focusing it is what keeps it alive," Lemmons told me about her genre entry. "I think cradle-to-grave-ing it... It takes a better man than me. I don't even know if I would take it on. Maybe one day I'll get an idea to do some story that would be cradle-to-grave. But focusing it is what keeps it interesting. Good Night and Good Luck is interesting. It's not a model story, but (Edward Murrow)'s a character and it's really happened and it's focused. Even Walk the Line -- it's happened. It's not the Johnny Cash story. The central action is from when he meets her to when he proposes to her. What a beautiful constraint, you know? The constraining of it -- the discipline -- of narrowing the focus is what makes it come alive and makes you zone in on the guy."

Perhaps the more important question is how a biopic should balance its stakes in mythology and hagiography. Petey Greene did not need a major motion picture to canonize him; he was a guest at the White House in 1978, nearly 20,000 mourners attended his memorial service in 1984 and an African-American community center in D.C. bears his name. Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa emphasize most of this detail, yet still channel virtually all of Greene's vulnerability through Hughes, Vernell and WOL's uptight station manager E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen). Talk to Me dilutes Petey Greene's defiance, depicted in varying degrees of historical accuracy, to a pose.

And not out of some cinematic necessity, either. Consider last year's Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, decimated by critics for its latitudinal treatment of the photographer's transition from docile housewife to unflinching visionary. Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson indeed focused the story in an accurate time and place, but unapologetically fabricated huge swaths of Arbus' private life that drove her to her most legendary work. Fur ultimately failed in its commitment to its own experiment, half-heartedly mining the futility of Arbus' marriage and the airlessness of her upbringing when its muscle was, in fact, its imagination.

But Fur also represented a suspicion of a staid traditional form, and I appreciated its step toward overthrowing it. On- and off-screen, it suggested that convictions allow for as much drama as chronology. Talk to Me does something similar; corrosive kitsch aside (Cheadle wears nearly 40 costumes onscreen), its Tonight Show interlude and funk-for-funk's-sake embellish and affirm Greene's heroism. If mythmaking is our dominant cultural standard (and it must be for class strata, political continuity and celebrity worship to commingle as potently as they do), then Talk to Me's revisionism is a rich, even rewarding experiment in posterity.

Cheadle is quickly becoming something a veteran of the form; Petey Greene is his second biopic leading man in three years (he earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda), and he acknowledges wanting to mix the genre up again soon with his long-gestating Miles Davis biopic. "I agree it's been done to death, and that's the reason I wanted to do this Miles Davis piece," he said. "We have a different way we're going to tell the story, and the writers who are working on it are traditionally biopic writers -- two of the best, which is great to have them. They are very desirous to flip it on its ear and do something inventive and creative. That's what's fun about this project. You can't do somebody like Miles Davis and tell his story in a traditional way because he totally eschewed anything traditional. That was his whole take on life."

Of course, the same can be said of Petey Greene, whose reaction to Talk to Me would probably combine humble honor with a steady dosage of contrarian backlash. Would the story be true otherwise?

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