Fox // 1991 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Neal Solon (Retired) // March 6th, 2006
"They were just five guys from the neighborhood who created a sound that rocked America."
I have a day job. I teach high school. When I ask my male students for their favorite movies, the two most frequent responses are Scarface and The Five Heartbeats. I have seen Scarface, and I am aware of the pseudo-hip-hop connection there. Until now, though, The Five Heartbeats and I had not crossed paths. While I can see the potential voyeuristic, VH1 Behind the Music appeal to the film, can it really be good enough to explain why some of my students are quick to attribute Motown classics to guys who never existed?
Donald "Duck" Matthews (Robert Townsend, Little Richard, Eddie Murphy Raw), Eddie King, Jr. (Michael Wright, The Principal), J. T. Matthews (Leon, The Temptations, Little Richard), Terrance "Dresser" Williams (Harry J. Lennox, B*A*P*S, The Temptations), and Anthony "Choirboy" Stone (Tico Wells, Get on the Bus) are the Five Heartbeats. They are an all-black rhythm and blues vocal group coming of age and coming into their own in the 1960s. With their rising fame and power, the singers must deal with racism, greed, and drugs
Director Robert Townsend first made waves in Hollywood with his feature film debut, Hollywood Shuffle. The most famous movie he's helmed came later that year in Eddie Murphy's performance film, Raw. For his third turn behind the camera, Townsend turned to the music and personalities of Motown. The Five Heartbeats tells a story about the internal and external drama that stands in the way of a black singing group's success in the 1960s. Sadly, if it was ever original, the story has become mundane in the fifteen years since the film was first released in theaters.
Certainly, there has always been an interest in the drama inherent in the lives of celebrities. In the last decade, however, this drama has become the cornerstone of American popular culture. Shows like Survivor, The Real World, and, to a lesser extent, America's version of the British Pop Idol survive on the drama of manufactured, pseudo-celebrities.
This development in popular culture lessens the impact of Townsend's film. Townsend, who has a habit of writing, directing, and starring in his films, chose to center The Five Heartbeats on the problems and the personalities of the individual Heartbeats, rather than on the rise of the group itself. Where this may have been an extension of the celebrity biopic genre's traditional boundaries in 1991, today it is unexceptional. The norm has changed. Biographical films now rarely focus on the star beating the odds and rising to fame. Rather, they focus on fame as a destructive force. The star is not beaten by the odds; he is, instead, beaten by stardom itself. These days, the best the subject of a celebrity biopic can hope for is some sort of token rebirth in the closing minutes of the film.
Because the film no longer appears new or innovative, The Five Heartbeats' deficiencies become more apparent. Townsend tries to cobble together so many bits of real stories and real legends about the 1960s black music scene that the Heartbeats become less homage and more disjointed mish-mash. The way the film presents the story, one would think that the group's fame happened nearly effortlessly, but that once the Heartbeats were a hot commodity, they no longer dealt with music but instead dealt only with drugs, crooked producers, racism, and watching label-mates being dangled by their ankles off of balconies for arguing with the boss. Yes, these types of people existed, these forces came into play, and these events happened in the lives of singers of the era. Unfortunately, attributing the worst incidents that befell The Dells, The Isley Brothers, The Temptations, and Jackie Wilson to one, fictional group and making these incidents the thrust of a film results in an unbelievable story that becomes increasingly less compelling as it drags on for roughly two hours.
Just as unfortunate is the fact that Townsend's film is given a slipshod presentation on this 15th anniversary DVD. The audio on this disc is a major problem. It is a problem that I have experienced quite frequently recently. The surround sound transfer on this film is one that people who live in apartments will especially hate. The film goes back and forth between concert scenes and scenes heavy with drama and dialogue. Just as the film was unable to find the right balance between these types of scenes, you will be unable to find the happy medium on your volume controls. If you have the audio up enough to hear the dialogue, the songs will be unmercifully loud. If, on the other hand, you are concerned about keeping on good terms with your neighbors, be prepared to have the remote on hand. Such volume issues, while always unfortunate, are especially so for a film such as this. Focusing on the volume rather than on the film unnecessarily pulls one out of the cinematic world. With little to pull you back in, the film suffers further.
Fortunately, the video on this disc fares much better. The colors are faithfully and attractively rendered, and the transfer is clean and free from distracting defects. Fox has presented The Five Heartbeats in anamorphic widescreen at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and it looks good.
Rounding out the presentation is another helping of disappointment. For this 15th anniversary special edition, Fox has included a number of supplements. Unfortunately, most of the supplements are insubstantial and provide about as much insight into the film and its creation as the film itself does into the soul group from the 1960s. Of the four featurettes on tap -- "Meet the Five Heartbeats," "In the Studio," "The Look," and "The Director's Process" -- only "In The Studio" and "The Look" provide any worthwhile information about the making of the film. These five-minute pieces visit the singers who provided the vocal tracks for all of the performance scenes, and the make-up and hair artists who aged the characters over time and made the performers look authentic.
The other two featurettes, about twenty minutes in total, are effectively useless. "Meet the Five Heartbeats" introduces the film's characters, and is an unnecessary waste of five minutes for someone who has just watched the film. "The Director's Process," while it contains some video footage of rehearsals for the film, largely consists of director Robert Townsend being interviewed. He seems to be putting on an act for the camera, pretending to be somehow humble and deferential while all the while implicitly comparing his film to a handful of the masterworks of modern cinema. Also diminishing this extra's impact is that different takes from this same interview have already been seen in the three featurettes before it.
The most inexplicable extras, however, are a two-minute piece called "The Nomination" and the "bonus footage" included on the disc. "The Nomination" is a brief collection of interviews with the Five Heartbeats, in character, pretending that they are receiving a music award. This is fluff at its fluffiest.
The "bonus footage" included is really uncut, rough looking digital video of deleted scenes being filmed. Mind you, they are not actually deleted scenes. They are footage of the filming of deleted scenes that never made it into the movie or onto the disc. You can see the actors, but also bits of the crew and cameras and microphones. You can view these clips from the special features menu, as I did, or you can select a special option that will play this footage at various points within the film itself. Why one would want to do such a thing, I do not know.
Last, but not least, is the original publicity campaign. There is nothing here worthy of special note -- a few trailers and TV spots and a promotional featurette -- but it is always nice to have these things included on DVD releases. Its inclusion certainly makes more sense than some of the other extras here.
It is obvious that Robert Townsend loves the music of the 1960s. It is also obvious that he loved making this film. For my part, I wanted to like this film. I just couldn't. It is well-intentioned, but falls short of its director's far too lofty goals. Save your money. Catch Heartbeat J. T. Matthews (Leon) playing one of the Temptations in reruns of NBC's made-for-TV mini-series instead. It's more or less the same story, but it's free.
Thank you, Fox, for proving yet again that my students know not of what they speak. For that service and due to an inexplicable feeling of guilt that the Five Heartbeats have wrongfully suffered enough, all parties are conditionally released. Just don't do it again.
Review content copyright © 2006 Neal Solon; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Meet the Five Heartbeats
* In the Studio
* The Look
* The Director's Process
* The Nomination
* Original Publicity Campaign
* Bonus Footage