Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Talk to Me

Originally Written and Posted at on 12/18/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

In the turmoil of race riots and the Civil Right Movement in the mid and late 1960s, one of the best voices heard on radio is Petey Greene. Claiming he was "telling it like it is", Green's honest yet humorous take on politics and everyday life made him an unlikely voice for the African-American community from the late 60s to the 1970s. Though he died in 1984, Green's influence and life proved to be inspirational as his voice and saying what he got to say attitude remains relevant to this day. In 2007, a film based on life was released as it explored not just the impact of Greene's life but also his own personal life including his friendship with manager Dewey Hughes entitled Talk to Me.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, Talk to Me is about Petey Greene's life as a reformed convict who gets paroled as he becomes a radio DJ telling the African-American community about what he has to say and winning fans along the way. Playing the role of the legendary radio personality is Don Cheadle, who also serves as one of the film's executive producer. Also starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Martin Sheen. Talk to Me is an inspiring, entertaining film from Kasi Lemmons and company.

Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a radio program director from Washington D.C. who goes to visit his brother Milo (Mike Epps) at a state prison in 1966. During this visit, Hughes hears the voice of a raucous DJ named Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene as Hughes meets him and his girlfriend Vernell (Taraji P. Henson). Though Hughes isn't sure about hiring a convict who is still serving time, Hughes is desperate as he needs someone to boost ratings against another local station as its worrying his boss E.G. Sonderling (Martin Sheen). Greene eventually gets out after helping a suicidal prisoner as he and Vernell make their way to the station to Hughes' shock. Though Hughes rejects him that is followed by Greene making some protests to be on the radio, Hughes makes a deal with Greene who gets to do the morning slot as he takes over the much-beloved Sunny Jim (Vondie Curtis-Hall).

Greene's first broadcast gains controversy as Sonderling fires Greene though Hughes realizes that the feedback he's getting is what he needs. Sneaking Greene back into the radio station and locking up everyone, Greene and Hughes take over the morning show where Greene is a star. Success arrives very fast until Greene gets himself in trouble with Vernell who decides to sleep with another DJ in the Nighthawk (Cedric the Entertainer). When Sonderling reveals that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, Greene talks to the people on air where he manages to calm things down as he also hosts a free James Brown concert the next night. With Greene being the voice of D.C., Hughes believes he can make Greene a bigger star as they did a local talk show with Greene hosting.

When an offer to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson is happening, Hughes' dreams come true as he wants to see Greene on the show. Unfortunately, the night of Greene's appearance becomes a disaster leading to a fallout with him and Hughes. After Hughes becomes a successful DJ and the new head of the radio station, he realizes how much Greene has done so much for him while Greene becomes a recluse as the two ponder about their friendship.

While most stories about certain figures tend to be serious and dramatic but from the viewpoint of director Kasi Lemmons and the film's writers, they didn't go for that approach for the most part. Instead, they chose to portray an individual like Petey Greene as a man of excitement, charisma, and humor as the overall result is an entertaining bio-pic about the late DJ. While the film is filled with lots of humor and such, the core story of the film is about the relationship between Greene and Dewey Hughes. Here's two different men, one is brash, charismatic, and wild while the other is more clean-cut, eloquent, and ambitious. Yet, how they co-existed is the real revelation as they go into this journey from the streets of Washington D.C. to the Tonight Show and beyond.

While the film isn't perfect due to a minor shift in tone in the third act where the film is more about Dewey Hughes than Petey Greene, Lemmons' direction is still in line with the film's story of Greene. Particularly in Hughes' ambitions and what he wanted for Greene. It is there that Lemmons show the men for who they really are and not just some stereotypical caricatures that they seemed to appear. While Hughes may look like a clean-cut man who is trying to be white, there's a reason for his look and behavior while proving to his community that he is no sell-out. Greene meanwhile, may seem like a wild, tell-it-like-is kind of man, he is someone who prefers the simple pleasures of life and doesn't want to become some caricature. Lemmons' stylish direction filled with stock footage of the times of the late 60s to the early 80s is very solid as the result is a film that never gets dull and doesn't make it feel extremely nostalgic.

Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine does great work in capturing the film's distinctive look of the time periods from the bright colors of the radio station and Washington D.C. exteriors to the smoky, intimate lighting in the film's interior sequences in the homes of Hughes, Greene, and the pool halls. Fontaine's colorful, stylish photography is exquisite to capturing the look of the film's different periods. Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire does great work in the film's cutting style with the use of jump cuts, dissolves, side-split screens to capture the tone of the film's scenes including the riots and Greene speaking about the riots as he calm things down. Shropshire's editing is superb for its emphasis of style while maintaining its leisurely pace.

Production designer Warren Alan Young and art director Patrick Banister do a great job in capturing the look of the times with its furniture, cars, and appliances to give the film not just a feel of nostalgia of sorts but also a look as if the viewer is back in time. Costume designer Gersha Phillips does an amazing job with the film's clothing from the wild dresses of Vernell, the colorful suits and clothes of Petey, to the clean-cut look of Dewey that is very distinctive and stylish as if the 70s were alive again. Makeup artists Janice Tunnell and Geralyn Wraith do great work with the film's look of 70s from the mustaches of Petey and later, Dewey to the huge Afros that Vernell sports. Sound editor Jay Nierenberg and designer Stuart Provine do amazing work in capturing the spirit of the films' time while doing great work in the riot scenes and radio deejay scenes to convey that sense of the times.

The music score by Terence Blanchard is wonderfully diverse with its mix of 70s funk and jazz music helmed by Blanchard's trumpet to convey the sense of drama as well as excitement in those times. The soundtrack is filled with loads of soul classics from James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, and others that isn't just amazing to hear but also capture the spirit of the times.

The film's cast is overall brilliant with notable small performances from Richard Chevolleau as a prisoner whom Petey talks to early in the film, Peter MacNeill as the prison warden, Herbert Rawlins as soul legend James Brown, and Alison Sealy-Smith as the radio station's secretary. Mike Epps is excellent in the few scenes he's in as Dewey's incarcerated brother Milo who introduces Petey to Dewey. Vondie Curtis-Hall is excellent as the old-school DJ Sunny Jim who is upset at his demotion only to be one of Petey's supporters. Cedric the Entertainer is great and stylish as the sexy-voiced Nighthawk who always has a fine presence while being a voice of sexiness. Martin Sheen is in great form as the fearful E.G. Sonderling who is the comic relief of sorts as a man upset over Petey's comments as Sheen is a scene-stealer.

The film's biggest scene-stealer is Taraji P. Henson as Petey's girlfriend Vernell. Henson's wild, energetic performance is the perfect complement to Cheadle's charismatic performance as the woman who supports Petey while doing her own thing and such as Henson's performance is just phenomenal in every scene she's in. Chiwetel Ejiofor is perfect as the clean-cut Dewey Hughes. Ejiofor's performance is filled with some charm as well as subtlety as a man whose ambitions to be like Johnny Carson conflicts with Greene's more urban, intimate world. Ejiofor is the perfect counterpart to Cheadle while proving he’s a good nine-ball player. Then there's Don Cheadle in what has to be one of his best performances. Cheadle's brash, charismatic, no-nonsense performance is filled with energy and excitement in every scene he's in while proving he can be subtle as Cheadle again proves that he is one of American cinema's finest actors.

The Region 1 DVD from Focus Features presents the film in 2:35:1 aspect ratio for anamorphic widescreen along with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound for English along with subtitles in English, Spanish, & French. In the DVD are 30-minutes worth of special features including six deleted scenes. The first is a scene where Dewey talks to an associate about a slump with a reference to the Celtics. The second is an extended scene following Petey's talk on the riots that involved Sonderling talking an encounter he had with Dr. King a few years ago. The third scene is about an interview for Greene’s TV talk show where an executive is angry over comments Greene made for one of his guests as Greene says, he's just who he is. The fourth scene involves a dress rehearsal at the Tonight Show where Greene talked about a story of how he got himself out of prison, that's already been told before. The fifth scene is about Greene's love of booze and his call to Vernell trying to talk to her after being sober for six months. The sixth and final scene involves Greene making a speech at a high school about his lack of comfort towards success and change as his colleagues including Dewey, from afar, watch.

The 11-minute featurette Who is Petey Greene? is a mini-doc about the making of the film, Greene's life, and interviews with the film's cast and crew including director Kasi Lemmons. Lemmons and the cast discuss Greene's impact as well as the friendship between him and Dewey Hughes. A lot of the film's themes are discussed yet the cast are relaxed with clips of the film being made showing everyone having a good time. The 10-minute Recreating P-Town is about the film's look with profiles on production designer Warren Alan Young and costume designer Gersha Phillips. Phillips talks about the men's look for the clothes where for Dewey Hughes, the look came from Sydney Poitier while Greene is meant to be the opposite. Young talks about a lot of the film's production designs, notably the riot scene that took 2 days to shoot but 6 days to set up. The overall special features are great for the DVD and such.

Talk to Me is an inspiring yet entertaining bio-pic from Kasi Lemmons and company helmed by Don Cheadle's winning performance and a great supporting cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Taraji P. Henson. While it's more entertaining than Lemmons' own 1997 directorial debut Eve's Bayou, though the latter is a superior film. This is a film that proves to powerful yet funny at the same time as the life of Petey Greene is finally told. Talk to Me is a wonderful gem of a film that keeps making people laugh while reliving the days of the late 60s and early 70s.

(C) thevoid99 2011

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