A rather standard and unexceptional what-comes-up-must-come-down narrative arc is the blueprint for Talk to Me, the story of controversial D.C. deejay Ralph Waldo “Petey” Green Jr. (Don Cheadle), who ignited the capitol’s airwaves with his blunt straight-shooting during the tumultuous mid-to-late ’60s, and then fell into alcohol abuse and disrepute before his untimely death in 1982. Sountracked to the soulful hits Petey liked to spin, director Kasi Lemmons’s film charts its firebrand’s ascension from prison to radio-booth stardom to an ill-fated appearance on The Tonight Show thanks to Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a radio station employee driven to risk his career on the belief that fast-talking “man of the people” Petey is the key to reinvigorating R&B outlet WOL’s dwindling appeal to a pro-Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War youth generation. It’s a gamble that reaps immediate dividends for both individuals, who are aesthetically and temperamentally dissimilar—Petey’s brash mouth matched by his brasher duds, Dewey a “Mr. Tibbs” suit-and-tie company man—but who, per corny genre dictates, are actually more alike than they initially realize.
Lemmons tells her based-on-real-life tale with enough enthusiasm to partially obscure both the clichés lining her plot’s path as well as her cursory address of the roiling social unrest gripping the country. Meanwhile, Cheadle, coming off like a more cocky, profane, and soulful version of Boogie Nights’ Buck Swope, takes a few pages from Robin Williams’s Good Morning Vietnam script and, like co-star Taraji P. Henson as his flashy sexpot girlfriend Vernell, devours any and all nearby scenery. Ojifor and Cheadle’s combative brotherly rapport is the film’s solid anchor. Yet after Petey’s raucously impertinent trip up the showbiz ladder—culminating in his calming broadcast during the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—all that remains is his opposite-direction journey, which receives so little attention from Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa’s paint-by-numbers screenplay that Talk to Me more or less admits that its aim is to deliver not a warts-and-all life story but a lionizing memorial. It’s a predictably disingenuous tactic, albeit one that would be slightly less grating were it not for the fact that what time is spent on Petey’s fall from grace is typified by overworked heart-to-hearts, carefully manufactured tears, and melodrama’s favorite tragic device: the portentous cough.