The Five Heartbeats is a fictionalized account about the trials and triumphs of a singing quintet of friends. They are Donald “Duck” Matthews (Robert Townsend), the leader and composer of many of their songs; his older brother, J.T. Matthews (Leon), who seems more concerned about the ladies and fame rather than the work of being a performing artist; Eddie King, Jr. (Michael T. Wright), the exceptionally talented lead singer who is fighting several personal demons; Anthony “Choirboy” Stone (Tico Wells), the sheltered son of a local pastor who believes anything outside the church is not of God; and Terrence “Dresser” Williams (Harry Lennix, Jr.), the choreographer who is very stylish.
Spanning thirty years, the film shows the rise from their being young teens singing in neighborhood venues to becoming award-winning musical artists. It is narrated from the vantage of Duck.
Opening the film in the early 1960s, is a “Battle of the Bands” scene in which the young teens, known as The Heartbeats, are to perform against a more seasoned group, Flash and the Ebony Sparks. Although they lose that evening, Jimmy Potter (Chuck Patterson), a music manager sees their potential. He meets with them, offering them a deal to oversee their group, as he could make them so much better.