The Hollywood biopic is a strange beast. No matter how terrific the writing, direction, cinematography or attention to historical detail, it seems what we remember most about films like 'Ray,' 'Nixon' or 'Capote' are their lead performances. Boasting a fantastic, award-worthy star turn by Don Cheadle, 'Talk to Me' demonstrates that this phenomenon can work both ways, with the strengths of Cheadle's performance distracting from a woefully uneven and mediocre production.
The film itself tells the true story Ralph "Petey" Greene (played by Cheadle), an ex-con who defied the odds to emerge as one of the most powerful and influential radio/TV commentators of his generation. But while Green's life would seem to make for fascinating biopic material, in the hands of Director Kasi Lemmons ('Caveman's Valentine,' 'Eve's Bayou') unfortunately this film fails on almost every level.
The film's core issue is that its tone never quite gels. The filmmakers seem to be aiming their sights on the same mainstream audiences that embraced flicks like 'Ray' and 'Dreamgirls,' but in their quest for commercial viability, they dull all of film's more interesting rough edges. Soft when it should be gritty, toothless when it should be biting, the movie portrays Greene as a big teddy bear with a foul mouth, and not the edgy character who gave a voice to a generation and helped to salve the deep wounds inflicted on our country during the civil rights movement.
Confined to a fairly short period in Greene's career, 'Talk to Me' concentrates on his exit from prison and rise to stardom in the mid-'60s, through the apex of his popularity by the beginning of the next decade. His early life is completely avoided, so we know nothing of the man as the film begins, while the subsequent timeline is so condensed that it plays fast and loose with the facts (multiple events are condensed into one, while some characters are composites of several different real-life figures). That gives 'Talk to Me' the feel of one of those Time-Life specials -- it hits all the correct historical beats, but never quite gets the music right.
It's frustrating that so many of the more fascinating aspects of Greene's life are glossed over, or mishandled. Even his time as a "miscreant" (where he was an exemplary prisoner, saving the life of a fellow inmate in a botched suicide attempt) is bulldozed through in the film's prologue, which inexplicably paints him as a loser buffoon. Even more bizarre, the film's screenwriters treat Greene's two pivotal personal relationships as slapstick melodrama. Taraji P. Henson is first-rate as Greene's long-suffering wife Vernell (with whom he would have four children), but these comedic scenes feel so disconnected from the serious tone of the rest of the film that they come off as needless soap opera. The film's real missed shot at greatness, however, lies in Greene's relationship with Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Hughes was an "assimilationist," an African-American who believed that the key to civil rights (and upward mobility) was through the sublimination of an ethnic identity, a world view that clashed with Greene's far more politicized activism. Here too, 'Talk to Me' largely goes for easy laughs -- wasting time on such scenes as when Greene, after being kicked out yet again by Vernell for cheating, shows up buck-naked at Hughes door, ruining his blind date. With such a vivid, colorful life to draw from, this is the kind of fluff the filmmakers' chose?
The film's historical authenticity is further hampered by a limited budget, which shows through in its shoddy production values. The costume design is too clean (everyone looks as if they shopped at "'60s Day" at Urban Outfitters), while the locations are so clearly limited to interiors that none of the film's big setpieces ring true. This is most clear in the pivotal moment when Greene reacts to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Lemmons obviously had no money to re-create the fiery riots that gripped Washington, leaving it to Cheadle to single-handedly convey the emotion and danger of that pivotal moment. "They got him, y'all. They got him!" Cheadle anguishes, and his words are affecting. But there is still no getting around the fact that the film's limitations have forced events that should have been dramatized on-screen into mere exposition.
At the end of the day, 'Talk to Me' is a poor biopic that fails to illuminate the life of a man truly deserving of some much-needed recognition. Having said that, I still think it's worth seeing, if only to witness a great actor at the top of his game. Cheadle is absolutely terrific in the lead role, and is the film's saving grace. If only the rest of 'Talk to Me' rose to his level.
Judging the video quality of 'Talk to Me' is a tough call. The filmmakers have deliberately given the movie a soft-focus look that adequately invokes the '70s, yet it also has an overly-slick, polished look that's far from gritty. Unfortunately, the results don't quite balance out to create a fantastic high-def presentation.
Universal offers up a 1080p/VC-1 encode in the film's original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The source is certainly clean, with a consistent film-like thin veneer of grain throughout. As mentioned above, it looks as if a diffusion filter was used for just about every shot, which flattens out edges, and blows out contrast a tad. Interestingly, although the film's sets and costumes are garish (hey, it was the '70s), colors seem to be intentionally subdued. The result is a somewhat middle of the road color field that never truly pops.
On the plus side, detail is generally strong, black levels are pure, and the image generally has plenty of depth. There are also no compression artifacts to speak of, and I was grateful this wasn't another of Universal's edge enhancement horrors, with halos all over the place. It's certainly not a top-tier presentation, but overall this is still an above-average transfer that's as smooth and silky as one of Petey Greene's monologues.
Universal provides both Dolby TrueHD (48kHz/24-bit) and Dolby Digital-Plus (1.5mbps) 5.1 surround mixes for 'Talk to Me,' but truth be told both tracks are so subdued that they may as well be stereo.
From the film's many musical montages to the big riot scene, there are a good number of sequences that just scream out for some envelopment. Alas, the soundtrack just doesn't come alive. Discrete effects are minimal, and even the music is weakly rendered. Dialogue is cleanly recorded if slightly flat in the mix. I had to adjust volume on a couple of occasions, though to be fair it was nothing severe. Dynamics are average, with some sense of heft and depth, but I was certainly never blown away. For what it is, 'Talk to Me' is listenable enough, but for a film so much about words and music, this one really deserves a more adventurous soundtrack.
'Talk to Me' barely rated a blip at the box office, so I suppose it's no surprise that Universal didn't go all-out with the supplements for its video release. Still, it's hard not to be disappointed by this slim package.
First up are couple of featurettes. "Who is Petey Greene?" (10 minutes) may sound intriguing, but despite what its title may imply, this is not a doc on the real guy. Instead, it's just a bunch of happy-happy on-set interviews with Don Cheadle, Kasi Lemmons, Cedric the Entertainer and other cast members. All go on and on about how great the flick is gonna be, but there's precious little substance between all the film clips. "Recreating P-Town" (11 minutes) is a nice little look at how the period costumes, locations and props were created, but that's all it is -- nice.
Next up is a collection of seven Deleted Scenes that runs about 9 minutes. There's actually some good stuff here (most notably an "Oscar moment" for Martin Sheen, breaking down after hearing the news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination).
Alas, that's it. No commentary, no real doc, not even a trailer. At least the video is pretty good, with the featurettes in 1080i/VC-1, while the deleted scenes are 480p/MPEG-2 only (and 4:3 pillarboxed to boot).
'Talk to Me' is a heartfelt period piece about a cult radio figure who lived his life far outside the mainstream. Though I don't think director Kasi Lemmons captured the appropriate tone, the film is worth seeing if only for another terrific performance from Don Cheadle. As an HD DVD/DVD combo release, this one's equally middle of the road. The video and audio are fine but not spectacular, and the extras too thin. Unless you happen to be a fan of the film, this one's a rental at best.