Human lives tend to be messy and open-ended. Hollywood movies, by and large, are not. And in a weird bit of creative calculus, the messier the life, the more likely it is to be squeezed into a familiar formula. Talk To Me revisits the life of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, an addict-turned-DJ-and-activist who was a fixture on Washington D.C. radio and television from the late '60s until his death from cancer in 1984 at age 53. Little of Greene's output survives, but a small selection of YouTube clips capture a straight-shooting, fast-talking man well versed in the art of spiel. His unlikely ascent and not-quite-descent demands an eccentric telling, but director Kasi Lemmons—showing little of the originality that characterized her debut, Eve's Bayou—gives it a rise-and-fall arc familiar from countless biopics. Viewers should be excused a sense of déjà vu when the film hits its rise-to-fame montage set to period music.
Fortunately, Talk To Me has a pair of assured performances to keep it grounded. The always reliable Don Cheadle does electric work as Greene, playing him as a man whose oversized personality gave him no choice but to be himself at all times. Whether off the air or on, Cheadle's Greene feels duty-bound to offer his barbed opinions on all topics without trying to disguise his own shortcomings. After all, his checkered past looks insignificant next to the institutionalized racism of the government and the deeply segregated city it calls home.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Cheadle's producer/manager/conscience, helping him horn his way onto the air via a soul-music station that's begun to lose contact with everyday people. The fraternal friction they generate almost redeems the movie. A product of the D.C. streets who's learned to navigate polite, white society, Ejiofor begins the film dismissing Cheadle's appeal. Then, after spending years watching his easy, off-the-cuff approach to everything from comedy to calming the riots after Martin Luther King's assassination, Ejiofor starts to lose sight of what makes that appeal work, trying to bring his friend to a larger audience, most disastrously through an appearance on The Tonight Show.
There's a story here beneath the details of Greene's life about how things that work in the margins can't—and shouldn't—work in the mainstream. (Richard Pryor, for instance, won't be best remembered for Superman III.) Unfortunately, that story isn't particularly well told, and after a while, the strength of the two leads' work and the popping soundtrack can't hide the fact that Lemmons doesn't really have much to say about the material. It's an unfortunately neatly packaged tale about a man who, by all evidence, constantly and consciously resisted easy repackaging.