Talk To Me: Firing Up the AM Dial in DC
By Prairie Miller
Before the reigning shock jocks of talk radio today - banished, unbanished and otherwise - there was, well, Ralph Waldo Petey Greene. A founding father of the fouled mouthed and furiously funny on-air sit-down satirical rant as precursor to standup raunch, the black ex-con with a gift for ghetto gab who counted Howard Stern as a guest fan on his show, fired up the AM dial in DC in a style that forever changed the face of radio.
Kasi Lemmons' Talk To Me brings that barely known story of Petey's meteoric mid-'60s rise and subsequent crash and burn demise to the screen, capturing the euphoric and daring, rebel music drenched energy that fueled radio culture back then, while also tuning in to the organic intensity of the times. Don Cheadle as Petey shows up at DC's expiring WOL-AM fresh from a stint at the joint, insisting he can breathe new life into the ratings funk-afflicted station after cutting his teeth doing free form in-house extreme radio for his enthused fellow inmates. The program director Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejifor), an uptight upwardly mobile brother with undisguised contempt for Petey and his underclass roots, takes a chance on the charmingly pushy FCC-baiting loose cannon.
Cheadle is magnetic and disarmingly flamboyant in Talk To Me, both in front of a radio mike and up on the screen, as he delicately peels away the gruff psychological layers of inebriated buffoonery and sexist macho attitude to reveal a touching and soulful sensitivity way beneath the bravado. And it's not just his unique gift for virtually caressing the collective ears of all those anonymous radio listeners out there, with an extraordinary seductive emotional intimacy. It's his own naked feelings too, whether succumbing to disabling stage fright, seething over social injustice, stirred with the new black pride, or crushed when breaking news hits the airwaves about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
And it is in these spectacularly mounted scenes of the torching of DC as news of King's murder spreads and street riots rage through the Capitol, that Lemmons, one of that rare breed of black female filmmakers, conveys with uncommon visual and verbal clarity, an unrealized and self-destructive soul gripped by his historical time. And how those like Petey who were driven to rise bravely to the occasion, to guide a confused and devastated people, in turn shaped that time.
Kasi Lemmons, who directed the babe-bonding tale Eve's Bayou and Samuel L. Jackson in The Caveman's Valentine, displays an exceptional grasp in deciphering the male psyche, warts and all, as often a messy mixture of rough humor, awkward tenderness, and bottled rage. And as co-written by the real life son of Dewey, Michael Genet, Talk To Me and its clash of class aspirations between Ejifor's materialistic, fame-fixated Dewey and Petey's humble man of the people talk radio genie who refuses corporate celebrity just to stay real, is for both film and radio, one of their finest moments.
Universal Studios Home Video
DVD Extras: Who Is Petey Greene? : The cast and crew discuss the racial politics of the '60s and '70s, and the change of social commentary in radio; Recreating P-Town: A behind-the-scenes look at the music, fashion and production design of the film; Deleted Scenes: Includes Martin Sheen character's eloquent speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
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