Whether he’s portraying a Rwandan hotel owner in Central Africa or the life of musical legend Sammy Davis Jr., Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle has had his fair share of playing biographical characters and in his latest offering he portrays the iconic disc jockey Ralph Waldo "Petey" Green, a controversial shock jock and community activist who achieved fame in Washington, D.C. during the ‘60s.
An outlaw who was convicted for armed robbery in 1960, Petey spent several years in Virginia’s Lorton Prison. It was there he honed his disc jockey skills whilst in Lorton’s work program playing records his grandmother sent him to fellow inmates whilst dishing out his perception on the harsh realities of life. An early parole in ‘69 sent the ex-con back on the streets where after co-founding several volunteer driven efforts for ex-convicts, he ended up as a morning radio show host on WOL-AM radio, combining his caustic humor with social commentary. Known for his outlandish humor, colorful wardrobe and his efforts to help the disadvantaged, it was at the station that he forged a lifelong friendship with radio producer Dewey Hughes, played by Globe Award(R) nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots).
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou), “Talk to Me” profiles an exciting and turbulent period in American history and its attempt to tell the story of Petey is well constructed as it depicts him as not necessarily a heroic nor sympathetic character but as one who had failings and successes. “Cheadle embodies Petey,” says Taraji who stars as his fiery and flamboyant girlfriend Vernell Watson, a composite character created from a combination of many women in Petey’s life. “He embodies every character that he portrays. He becomes that character and totally disappears.” For Cheadle, who remained interested through the years of development and serves as an executive producer on the film it was a totally new story. “I was fascinated that this character really existed as I knew nothing about Petey before and first heard about him about 10 years ago when Ted Demme, who has since passed had the project and was trying to get it made.”
A seductive and infectious flick, “Talk” follows the traditional biopic formula in a genre Hollywood has come to love encapsulating the ‘60’s with colorful costumes, catchy phrases and foot stomping soul music an integral part of that era. Cedric the Entertainer plays Petey’s rival DJ Nighthawk and Martin Sheen costars as E.G. Sonderling, the conservative station owner who initially disapproves of Green’s satirical style whilst Mike Epps plays Hughes’s brother who is also incarcerated in Lorton. This movie does a remarkable job of summarizing Petey’s strengths as a compelling spokesman for the black-pride philosophy and his weaknesses as a philandering womanizer and former drug addict.
With a great cast, direction and a script which brilliantly weaves in historical events, it has all the ingredients of a worthy flick and moves along at a good pace without any slow points. Vibrant music and exploding social consciousness are superbly combined to create a unique and powerful effect. Cheadle is perfect for the role of Petey and although he has previously played a few biographical parts he’s quick to point out that it doesn’t get any easier. “It gets more difficult,” he says. “It gets easier when they are not super well known. It’s difficult because they are still relevant whether they are well known or not. Because you try to capture of the essence of who this person is and try to be true to the spirit of their life and do a service to those who know him or did know him.”
Lemmons gets most of the periodic details right as she chronicles Petey’s release from the penitentiary to his much-deserved elevation to celebrity status as one of the all-time great personalities of that era. An absorbing portrait with rock-solid editing this movie will tug and pull your emotional strings. Particularly poignant is the handling of civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s assassination, which caused riots in the area at the time. Petey was credited for restoring the calm amongst the angry mobs in a killing that took America by storm during the turbulent ‘60's which is poignantly dramatized in this biopic.
Good biopics are seductive and movies that portray the lives of the living or once lived are usually box office successes and this should be no different. A voyeuristic look into the lives of famous folks, such films illustrate for the rest of us that even famous people have human failings. Ultimately, the success of a biopic boils down to acting, direction and writing, three categories “Talk” gets tops marks in. It’s captivating, appealing and watchable and is a biographical film that has the depth and compression of fiction combined with an infectious soundtrack and raucous dialog, and as biopics go this has to be one of the best. With yet another biopic about legendary jazz musician Miles Davis in store for Cheadle, two things are obvious Hollywood & Cheadle have an insatiable appetite for the genre.