The Five Heartbeats (1991)

Rated R

Starring: Robert Townsend, Michael T. Wright, Leon, Harry Lennix, Jr. and Tico Wells

Rated: R Drama/Music

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. 

The five young men agree to allow him as a test trial when he offers to pay the group $100 if he cannot get their performance improved in time for the Battle of the Bands showcase the following month.  Although the group does not win and Jimmy pays them, the owner of the nightclub wants to hire them.  When the owner asks the name of their manager, they agree Jimmy is and happiness is enjoyed by all those there.

As the group, who becomes known as “The Five Heartbeats”, ascend to success, various obstacles threaten the friends’ personal and professional relationships.  They include a corrupt record label owner, Big Red (Hawthorne James); Jimmy’s wife, Eleanor (Diahann Carroll), who doesn’t want her husband to become involved again with music management because of past tribulations; racism; addiction; “payola” or pay-for-play schemes; and egotism.

How will these five men be able to hold it all together to remain as one … is the price of success worth it?  Viewers must see this film to see how it turns out for the five friends!

Receiving mixed reviews from critics, The Five Heartbeats is still a contemporary urban hit!  Inspired by R&B acts such as The Temptations, Sam Cook, Wilson Pickett and Frankie Lymon, the film is primarily based on the legendary soul group, The Dells.  It was written by Robert Townsend, who also directed it, and Keenan Ivory Wayans.  The duo previously worked together on Townsend’s independent film, Hollywood Shuffle (1987).  That film reached cult status because of Townsend’s unwavering dedication of using all of his resources, including his personal credit cards, to fund it. 

Several changes occurred from the conception of The Five Heartbeats to its manifestation.  These include source of inspiration (From The Temptations to The Dells), number of characters (three to five) and even suggested stars such as Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.  However, these changes, overall, have led to the motion picture being endeared to many. 

Of significance is that the was the first time that Robert Townsend directed a traditional feature film, as Hollywood Shuffle was a satire that contained a collection of comedy sketches.  He did so well, it prompted legendary critic Roger Ebert to write in his review, “The Five Heartbeats” for the Chicago Sun-Times that “… Townsend shows a real talent, and, not surprisingly, an ability to avoid most clichés, to go for the human truth in his characters.” 

In 2002, The Five Heartbeats was released on DVD.  Five years later, a special edition, which contained additional footage, was released in celebration of the film’s 15th anniversary.

The soundtrack, The Five Heartbeats: Music from the Motion Picture, was released by Virgin Records that same year.  It contained original music by various performers.  Artists performing on it included Patti LaBelle, Andraé Crouch and, of course, The Dells, who acted as consultants on the film.

What is unique about this soundtrack is that a number of the tracks are actually credited to the fictional characters from The Five Heartbeats and not the actual vocalists. 

Both “A Heart is a House for Love” and “Nights Like This” ranked in The Top 20 Hits on the “Hot R&B Singles” chart of Billboard.  Additionally, The Five Heartbeats earned a “Most Performed Songs in a Motion Picture Award” from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).  This honor was for the track, “Nights Like This”, which was performed by the R&B group, After 7.

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