Fox // 1991 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Kevin Lee (Retired) // May 2nd, 2002
The rise and fall of a Motown-style vocal group.
Motown Records is credited with discovering a vast number of African American musicians and singers through the years, and many of these performers went on to have great careers that spanned the racial barriers of the '60s, making Motown Records something of cultural significance. Comedian Robert Townsend and co-writer Keenan Ivory Wayans bring us The Five Heartbeats, the story of a fictional vocal group living the rags-to-riches dream in the Motown Era, and now Fox has brought it to DVD.
Five African American youths, Donald "Duck" Matthews (Townsend, The Meteor Man), Eddie King, Jr. (Michael Wright, The Principal), J.T. Matthews (Leon, Cool Runnings), Terrance "Dresser" Williams (Harry J. Lennix, Love And Basketball), and Anthony "Choir Boy" Stone (Tico Wells, Trespass) have formed a vocal group in the Motown style and compete in ghetto talent competitions with the hopes of rising to the top. Unfortunately for them, a lot of these competitions are rigged and The Five Heartbeats find themselves on the outside looking in until they meet up with Jimmy Potter (Chuck Patterson), who agrees to refine their act and manage their careers despite past failures.
Time passes and suddenly The Five Heartbeats find themselves wowing audiences and making women swoon (a superpower that would make Superman envious). They soon draw the attention of Big Red Davis (Hawthorne James, Amistad), a slimy, corrupt reekazoid of a record producer who wants the boys recording for him. At this point we get the hint that Jimmy has had past issues with Red, and declines any sort of offer, but every other record label wants to take The Heartbeats' songs and have them recorded by a white vocal group. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Jimmy and the boys, so they turn back to Red who woos them with fancy cars, houses, and jewelry.
The Five Heartbeats quickly become successful and ultimately succumb to the dangers of success, such as rampant womanizing, bitter infighting and jealousy, natural sibling rivalry, drugs and alcohol, and greed. Jimmy is sold down the river by Eddie, and when he doesn't give in to Red's demands he's murdered, driving a spike through the group who replaces Eddie with "Flash" Turner (John Canada Terrell, Mo' Better Blues). Unfortunately, Flash is only out for himself and uses the Heartbeats as a springboard for his own solo career. The years pass and we slowly see the Heartbeats, the musical act, and the Heartbeats, the longtime friends, disintegrate.
It was quite obvious from watching The Five Heartbeats that this film was a labor of love for Robert Townsend, who also directed. The story begins in 1965 and takes us pretty much up into the mid-'70s (though a bookend to the story takes place in 1991) and the music styles and fashions are all properly recreated with a tremendously modest budget. This is helped greatly Stanley Clarke's riveting musical score, which lovingly dips, swings and rides the crests and valleys of the Motown sound. If you have any appreciation for this style of music, you're in for a treat. If The Five Heartbeats had received proper attention when it was released, perhaps it could have done for R&B what The Blues Brothers ended up doing for blues music.
Clarke's score, naturally, is in turn greatly assisted by the surprising vocal talent of the principle actors. I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised since they were probably auditioned extensively before they got the part, but you can certainly tell they aren't lip-syncing (or, if they are, they did a great job of covering it up). The cast, as a whole, exhibits terrific acting prowess, especially Michael Wright as the troubled Eddie King. His drinking causes a number of problems with the group, which causes him to sell out Jimmy, and this in turn causes a vast amount of guilt over Jimmy's fate. Wright's multi-layered performance brings the cast together and allows them all to portray three-dimensional characters with a level of humanity that you simply don't get with cardboard characters or clichés that you find in so many other films. Additionally, Hawthorne James' Big Red Davis simply couldn't have been creepier if he'd been covered in spiders. The man oozed a level of hidden malevolence that made the character work from his first scene to his sudden exit from the film.
The Five Heartbeats has been given a credible anamorphic transfer by Fox. That is to say, that I found no discernible problems with the transfer in the way of edge enhancement, and all colors were properly displayed at all times. Some of the darker scenes occasionally exhibited some graininess, but I can chalk this one up to the age of the master print and maybe even the low budget production values. Please note that this does not distract from the film itself. The sound may not have a 5.1 mix, but this does not prevent a truly electric sound experience. The four channels are properly utilized and allow the audience to experience the music the way it was intended. The Five Heartbeats runs somewhat light on the special features, giving us a theatrical trailer and some television spots, a small featurette about the movie, and a profile of Robert Townsend. There's nothing earth-shattering here, at all, and I would suggest that this film's admirers would have welcomed a director's commentary.
There are really two overall problems with The Five Heartbeats. The first problem lies with the predictability of the plot. If you've seen a couple of episodes of "VH-1's Behind the Music," you'll have a pretty good idea of what's in store for the characters in this movie. Alcohol and drug problems are a given, as well as the infighting. And it would just not have been right if there hadn't been some sort of statement in regards to the greedy record moguls who got rich on the talents of their stars, a number of whom died in poverty. There are a couple of nifty twists, but unfortunately, you can see most of them coming a good 10 to 15 minutes before they happen.
The second real problem is with the lack of any cohesion with time, which flies by at unheard of and indiscernible speeds, though intermittently we're informed of what year it is. The difficulties are compounded when Townsend simply tries to do too much with the story. Each character seems to have some fatal flaw that interrupts the group dynamic, and each of these flaws is dealt with throughout the ten years or so this film covers. It was as though Townsend wanted to take five plots from "VH-1's Behind the Music" and apply it to one story. The pacing isn't nearly as mind-numbingly brisk as it was in the German opus Mephisto, but there were times when it came close. In the hands of a more capable director, maybe The Five Heartbeats wouldn't have felt as rushed as it did, but as it stands Townsend should either have cut a couple of subplots out of the film or extended the run time by half an hour. I'm not sure which option would have been better, however. Since the time whisks by at unfathomable speed, the various subplots involving the bandmates are given simple lip service. This turns the ending, in which everything comes full circle for The Five Heartbeats, into a rushed and forced conclusion. This should have been the emotional highlight of the film, but it ultimately doesn't work and comes off as a cliché, which is unfortunate given the effort put into The Five Heartbeats.
There are numerous shortcomings with The Five Heartbeats, but the acting performances and the music may allow you to overlook them. If you like this style of music you will probably enjoy this film, and in that case, I'd recommend it.
Despite some misgivings, I'm going to exhibit a bit of leniency and let The Five Heartbeats go free.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Robert Townsend Profile
* Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots