The Five Heartbeats

1991, Movie, R, 121 mins

Review

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An entertaining, highly charged musical biography, THE FIVE HEARTBEATS is based on the sagas of such legendary 60s R&B groups as the Temptations and the Dells. Although mired in show-biz musical cliches, director-writer-producer and star Robert Townsend unfolds the story of the Five Heartbeats with such energy and exuberance that the cliches become markers in an electrified mix.

The story is told in flashback as a middle-aged Duck (Robert Townsend) sees a cover story in Rolling Stone Magazine consisting of a picture of the Five Heartbeats with the caption, "Where are they now?" Back in the 60s, the career of the Five Heartbeats is followed on its rocky road to success--their first public appearance at a talent show, their guidance under hard-pushing manager Jimmy Potter (Chuck Patterson) and ill-tempered choreographer Sarge (Harold Nicholas), their first hit record, their dealings with an unscrupulous company, and their problems of sex, drugs and loneliness. At the height of their fame, lead singer Eddie (Michael Wright), who is involved in drugs and dealing with the unsavory promoter Big Red (Hawthorne James), maneuvers to have Jimmy Potter removed, unaware that Big Red's removal method involves murder. After Potter is killed, Eddie leaves the group in shame.

The Five Heartbeats hire a new lead singer, Michael "Flash" Turner (John Canada Terrell), and achieve even greater success, but their personal conflicts intensify. At a reception honoring the group for their latest gold record, Michael announces his departure to begin a solo career and Duck, believing his fiancee is having an affair with his brother, announces before a shocked audience that he too is leaving the group. Back in the present, Duck receives an invitation to the opening of a church. When he arrives he sees Eddie singing with the choir. Making ammends with his brother at an outdoor get together, the Five Heartbeats reunite and creakily recreate one of their popular hits for their gathered families.

Film historian Robert Miller identifies the continual use of overworked cliches in countless Hollywood films as "star myths" and Robert Townsend jumps into this vat with his eyes and ears open. Rather then drown in tired formula, however, Townsend revivifies them with care, feeling and love, as if creating them anew.

If THE FIVE HEARTBEATS lacks in originality, Townsend seems to be reminding us that show business cliches do not necessarily have to ring false, particularly in the case of many R&B groups of the 60s, whose rise to fame coincided with the group members' physical and emotional growth to adulthood--success becoming a death's head for many a young man. (The tragic demise of crooners Sam Cooke and Frankie Lymon offers ample proof of this fact.)

It is a testament to Townsend's skill that he gets under the skin of the cliches and refashions them. There is a wonderful moment in the film, for example, when Duck is trying to write a song for the group before a recording deadline. Unable to come up with anything, his bossy sister (Tressa Thomas) suddenly bursts into impassioned song in the middle of Duck's bed, and he frantically tries to locate shards of his songwriting and reformulate them as he and his sister improvise. The energy and freshness of this scene is emblematic of the film as a whole and how Townsend and co-scripter Keenen Ivory Wayans transcend the hokey and the hackneyed.

Compounding this, and also permitting the film to override its cliches, is the bright and hip ensemble work of the various players. The actors and actresses complement each other in their joyful singing and dramatic interactions alike. Robert Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, Harry Lennix, Tico Wells and John Canada Terrell make the Five Heartbeats into a believable singing group, which, in the land of cliche, is quite an achievement. Following behind them are fine performances by Hawthorne James, Chuck Patterson, Harold Nicholas and Diahann Carroll.

The one glaring fault of THE FIVE HEARTBEATS is that it does not really delve into the racism and corruption of the record industry during the 1960s. Some aspects of the problem are touched upon but the film remains stubbornly segregated. Although the black music world was caught up in the general corruption of the music industry that feasted on it, the dominant culture's media controls are never explored or criticized. So too, the bitterly fought political realities of the 60s are completely overlooked, with no mention of civil rights protests, Vietnam, Malcolm X, King or any major political movement. But then Townsend does not seem concerned with political criticism. Instead, he seems interested in paying homage to the star myths of Hollywood. And on those terms, THE FIVE HEARTBEATS succeeds admirably. (Profanity, adult situations.) leave a comment

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