The Reeler


July 12, 2007

Talk to Me

Silky biopic moves threaten to overshadow a bromance for the ages

The annals of the bromance are broad indeed; crossing genres in a way that a story about the platonic love between women never could, the splendors of male friendship can buttress anything from coming of age to a cop movie. The biopic is a more unusual breeding ground for bromance, but that didn’t stop Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) from honing in on the symbiotic relationship between Dewey Hughes and legendary Washington, D.C., disc jockey Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene in Talk To Me, her film about the career rise and fall of the latter.

Rather than attempt a top-to-bottom narrative of a life my Grandma Orange might have called “colorful,” Lemmons takes her cues from the beginning of Greene’s famed radio career. Indeed, though we meet Greene (played by Don Cheadle, funky and full of beans) while still incarcerated in the same prison as the brother of Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), we don’t learn why he’s serving a 10-year sentence. “I went to jail cause I was a knucklehead,” Petey says later, but his record for armed robbery seemingly didn’t sit well enough with the portrait of a lovable convict Lemmons had in mind.

Greene lobbies Hughes, a program director at WOL-AM, for a spot as a disc jockey, and the initial dynamic between the men is set up as sellout vs. truth-teller. A few angry stunts and one badass pool game later, Hughes decides to give Greene a shot on air, against the wishes of his boss (Martin Sheen, working his jowls and a few well-placed eye pops as Whitey #1). The set-up goes down smooth; Lemmons generates energy around her story and rapport between her leads, though uneven period details (was use of the “n-word” among blacks really so liberal in 1966 -- or “oh, hell no,” for that matter?) distract here and there. It’s not until the first blaring “biopic moment” -- on the air without permission, Greene is on the brink of being tossed out of the studio, until the phone lines light up, you know, like a Christmas tree -- that you realize you’ve actually signed on for a Profile in Courage.

All right, that’s overstating it. But the sense of a machine taking over, albeit a very well-oiled one, threatens to overshadow two very strong performances. I suppose what is treated as Greene’s groundbreaking material (a paean to black women with thick hips and Afros is one early “controversial” example) may have raised eyebrows back then, but it hardly marks Greene as the intriguing provocateur that the radio brass and an increasingly adoring Hughes mark him to be. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is framed as Greene's finest hour, making his career in a matter of minutes with his commentary, then appearing in public to soothe the D.C. masses.

Hughes is undergoing his own transformation, one a younger Petey might have called “Uncle Tom to Colonel Tom.” Though Greene trashed Berry Gordy in one of his earliest rants as no better than a pimp to his recording artists, Hughes, acting as Greene’s manager, has his eyes ever more focused on the prize, and not his client. When the film hits an aborted, potentially star-making appearance on The Tonight Show, Talk To Me almost visibly tires, despite the filmmaker’s dramatic embellishment of the events. The breach created that night is fairly definitive for the duo, sending them both off in new directions for better and worse.

In the aftermath of the Carson disaster, Greene’s long-suffering girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson, enjoyable to watch, despite the occasional scenery-humping) tries to broker peace between the men, like a faithful cupid recognizing a love story for the ages. Their bond holds fascinating potential, excavating and contrasting the dreams, ideals, talent and torment of two black men at opposite ends of the social spectrum on the cusp of the civil rights revolution. It’s only too bad their story had to compete with the built-in -- you could almost dictate the soundtrack from reading a plot summary -- biopic conventions.

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Comments (1)

good review by Michelle Orange. Glad to see Kasi Lemmons finding her directorial feet after the Caveman Valentine.

Oh, and yes, the N word was very liberally used among a certain class element of DC residents in 1966. A few youtube clips of the real Petey Greene have surfaced and you can see Peetey would have made any rapper proud.

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