The Five Heartbeats

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The Five Heartbeats
The Five Heartbeats.jpg
Directed by Robert Townsend[1]
Produced by Christina Schmidlin
Robert Townsend
Kokayi Ampah
Loretha C. Jones[2]
Written by Robert Townsend
Keenan Ivory Wayans[3]
Starring Robert Townsend
Michael oWright
Leon
Harry J. Lennix
Tico Wells
Harold Nicholas
Diahann Carroll[1]
Music by Stanley Clarke[1]
Cinematography Bill Dill
Edited by John Carter
Distributed by 20th Century Fox[4]
Release date(s)
  • May 29, 1991 (1991-05-29) (U.S.)[5]
Running time 122 minutes
Country United States
Language English[4]
Box office $8,750,400

The Five Heartbeats is a 1991 musical drama film directed by Robert Townsend, who co-wrote the script with Keenan Ivory Wayans. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, the film's main cast includes Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon Robinson, Harry J. Lennix, Tico Wells, Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers, and Diahann Carroll.[1] The plot of the film (which is loosely based on the lives of several artists: The Dells, The Temptations, Four Tops, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke and others)[6] follows the three decade career of the R&B vocal group The Five Heartbeats. The film depicts the rise and fall of a Motown inspired soul act through the eyes of the film's main protagonist, Donald "Duck" Matthews (portrayed by Townsend), who serves as a narrator[7] throughout the film. However, a majority of the cinema is presented in a consecutive time line as opposed to traditional flash backs.

The film was released to most North American audiences March 29, 1991[8] however it was not made available to audiences in other continents until 2002 when a DVD was released prior to another DVD release in 2006 for the film's 15th anniversary.[9] The movie received mixed reviews from critics.[10][11]

Plot[edit]

In the early 1990s, Donald "Duck" Matthews browses a Rolling Stone magazine, noticing an article questioning the recent exploits of The Five Heartbeats, The Temptations, and The Four Tops and why the groups disbanded.

In a flashback, Donald Matthews, Anthony "Choir Boy" Stone, J.T. Matthews and Terrence "Dresser" Williams are preparing to perform at a music contest. They are forced to prepare to sing both their vocals and those of other members since Eddie Kane Jr. and Bobby, the lead singers, are missing. Bobby and Eddie cheat while gambling. Bobby is shot in the leg, but Eddie arrives at the contest and performs with the Heartbeats.

The group loses to Flash and the Ebony Sparks but pleases the crowd and is noticed by music producer Jimmy Potter. Jimmy offers to manage the group; to prove he has their best interests at heart he promises them $100 from his own pocket if they do not win first prize the next month. After a more polished performance the group still loses. Jimmy pays the group, and they sign a contract with him. Jimmy brings in Ernest "Sarge" Johnson as the group's choreographer. After vigorous training Sarge and Jimmy feel the Heartbeats are ready to perform in a larger competition.

Bird, lead singer of Bird and The Midnight Falcons witnesses the Heartbeats rehearsing their routine and is concerned his group could lose; he asks his girlfriend to invite her friends and boo The Heartbeats while cheering The Midnight Falcons. The announcer, Bird's cousin, forces The Heartbeats to use a piano player they are unfamiliar with. He also claims that The Heartbeats believe themselves to be better than the other groups.

The Heartbeats perform "A Heart Is a House for Love". Duck grows frustrated with the house piano player's butchering of the music and takes over the piano. Eddie leads the group in a number that results in Bird's girlfriend fainting in Eddie's arms. Watching in the audience is Flash, leader of the Ebony Sparks. The Heartbeats win the contest with a standing ovation and the interest of Big Red, who owns Big Red Records. Big Red offers them a deal, but Jimmy and his wife Eleanor, aware of Big Red's corrupt operations, decline. The group searches for a record company they can trust, but the only ones that will sign them are Caucasian operated and insist that their songs be covered by a white group named The Five Horsemen, giving the Heartbeats only minor song writing credit, thus forcing them to sign with Big Red.

The group goes on the road. Choir Boy's father is concerned he will forget where he comes from, Dresser has a girl back home, Eddie's father is waiting for him to fail and J.T. and Duck have a family depending on them. The travel is marked by racism and poor living conditions. Dresser's girlfriend visits at the same time as the record rep from Big Red. Dresser finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and they are faced with their first album cover having white people on the cover. Despite their problems, the group becomes successful.

Throughout the mid to late 1960s The Five Heartbeats receive numerous awards, charting several hits, and being featured on magazine covers. Eddie abuses alcohol and cocaine, causing him to miss rehearsals and performances as well as losing his girlfriend. Eddie becomes paranoid and attempts to blackmail the other Heartbeats and Jimmy using his new deal with Big Red, along with buying Jimmy out of his contract. Jimmy threatens to go to authorities with information about bootlegged LPs, cooked books and payola that could have Big Red arrested, leading Red to have Jimmy killed. In the wake of the murder, the group learns that Eddie's deceit was behind the argument between Jimmy and Big Red. The group gets together to talk and includes Bird, whom Red beat up when he questioned his bookkeeping, to put Big Red away. Big Red is convicted of Jimmy's murder and the group moves to a new record label, but, despite Duck's pleas, Eddie leaves the group in disgrace.

The Heartbeats add former rival Flash as their lead singer, which angers J.T. due to their rivalry over women. Duck has gained the attention of Tanya Sawyer, whom he lusted after since meeting her in Jimmy's living room years ago. After their engagement, he suspects she is having an affair. After she leaves the house, he follows her to a hotel. The doorman asks for his autograph and marvels at the fact that he is the second Heartbeat the doorman has seen that night; his brother is already upstairs. Duck realizes Tanya is cheating on him with his brother. As Duck leaves, his fiancee and brother fight. Tanya has been trying to break things off, but he insists that she break things off with Duck. Tanya refuses, insisting she loves Duck. At an awards ceremony celebrating their success, Flash announces he is leaving the group. Duck reveals that he knows about Tanya and J.T., and that he, too, is no longer a Heartbeat.

Several years later, Duck receives a letter from Choir Boy, who returned to his father's church. He asks Duck to come to a service. When he enters the church Choir Boy's father is speaking then the choir starts singing and Eddie and Baby Doll step up to sing lead. After the service Duck reunites with Eddie, Choir Boy and Baby Doll. Eddie is clean, sober and married to Baby Doll, and also manages a group. He asks Duck to write songs for them, to which he agrees. He urges Duck to contact J.T. Duck finds J.T. in a park with a wife (an old girlfriend with whom he shared a bathroom sex scene at the beginning of the movie) and two children, including a son affectionately named "Duck". The brothers reconcile.

In the early 1990s, Flash has transitioned from doo wop to pop, as the lead singer of Flash and The Five Horsemen. The Heartbeats are disappointed by the music and aspire to show their families how they performed at the peak of their career. At first Eddie declines to join the other Heartbeats but Eleanor Potter, coming to terms with her husband's death, forgives Eddie.

The Five Heartbeats reunite at the end in front of their families and friends, trying graciously to remember their old moves.

Cast and characters[edit]

The Five Heartbeats[edit]

  • Robert Townsend as Donald "Duck" Matthews: Duck hails from a poor family. He is The Five Heartbeats' co-founder and brother of fellow Heartbeat's member J.T. Matthews, and originally was only the composer and musician for the group. He is a permanent vocalist after Bobby disappears. He serves as the movie's narrator, with the film beginning as he reminisces about the group's career.
  • Leon as J.T. Matthews: J.T. is the older brother of Duck.
  • Michael Wright as Eddie Kane, Jr. :Eddie comes from an area that features predominantly poor individuals, his own father believing his attempts to start a career in the music industry will be unsuccessful. Similar to David Ruffin, Eddie is the lead vocalist of the band and falls into a life of drugs that eventually leads to his expulsion from the group as well as emotional trauma. Eddie is one of the founding members of The Heartbeats and serves as the crowd pleaser whose voice leads to success in many of their performances.
  • Tico Wells as Anthony "Choir Boy" Stone: Stone is given the nickname "Choir Boy" (much to his chagrin) for his past as a choir boy in his father's church. Similar to Eddie, Stone's father does not support his decision to become a music artist fearing rock and jazz are "the devil's music."
  • Harry J. Lennix as Terrence "Dresser" Williams: The original choreographer of The Heartbeats, Dresser serves as the groups bass singer and one of the founding members. He is replaced by Ernest "Sarge" Johnson as the choreographer after Sarge out-dances Dresser.

Other characters[edit]

  • Hawthorne James as Big Red Davis: Corrupt owner of the first record label The Five Heartbeats are signed to.
  • Chuck Patterson as Jimmy Potter: The Heartbeats' manager, Jimmy is responsible for giving the group the opportunity to perform at more publicized events and receive training from Ernest "Sarge" Johnson.
  • Diahann Carroll as Eleanor Potter: Jimmy Potter's wife, Eleanor along with her husband are the original supporters of The Five Heartbeats.
  • John Canada Terrell as Michael "Flash" Turner: Lead singer of Flash and the Ebony Sparks, the Heartbeats' only competition. When Eddie goes into a downward spiral, Flash is brought in as the new lead singer.
  • Roy Fegan as Bird: Bird is the lead singer of Bird and The Midnight Falcons. Early in the film the character attempts to defeat The Five Heartbeats in a vocal contest. After Big Red orchestrates the murder of Jimmy Potter, Bird joins members of the Heartbeats in testifying against Red and helps to convict him of the murder.
  • Harold Nicholas of The Nicholas Brothers as Ernest "Sarge" Johnson: Johnson is The Five Heartbeat's choreographer. He choreographs the dance moves for the group. Sarge is last seen in the hospital on his birthday.
  • Troy Beyer as Baby Doll: Eddie's girlfriend, who leaves him after he abuses drugs and alcohol. She later marries Eddie and they are shown singing together in a choir.
  • Theresa Randle as Brenda: - Dresser's girlfriend, who later becomes his wife. She and Dresser have a daughter named Monica.
  • Lamont Johnson as Bobby Cassanova: Bobby and Eddie are the original co-lead singers of the group. Bobby is only seen in the movie's opening scenes when he and Eddie are caught cheating at a high stakes poker game. Bobby gets shot in the leg and is replaced by Eddie as the lead singer.
  • Carla Brothers as Tanya Sawyer: Tanya and Duck were set to be wed, but Duck's suspicion about Tanya and Choir boy had him follow her to a motel only to find out that his brother J.T. was the one seeing her. This led Duck to estrange himself from the Heartbeats and his Brother for years.
  • Tressa Thomas as "Duck's Little Sister:" Clara Matthews, Duck's little sister, was also his muse, often helping him compose and arrange songs for the group as they did household chores. She was instrumental in arranging the vocals for "We Haven't Finished Yet".

Other bands[edit]

  • Bird and The Midnight Falcons portrayed by actors Roy Fegan, Gregory Alexander, Roger Rose, Jimmy Woodard: The group The Five Heartbeats compete against in their second onscreen performance. The Midnight Falcons attempt to cheat by ordering their girlfriends to deliberately cheer against The Heartbeats.
  • Flash and the Ebony Sparks portrayed by John Canada Terrell, Ron Jackson, Recoe Walker and Wayne "Crescendo" Ward: The Ebony Sparks defeat The Five Heartbeats in singing competitions—many of which are rigged—prior to their mainstream popularity. Flash later becomes the lead singer for the Five Heartbeats.

Production[edit]

After writing (along with Keenan Ivory Wayans), producing, directing, and starring in his first film Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend had attained near-cult status among independent filmmakers due to his dedication to that film—a project which caused him to max out all his credit cards and spend nearly $100,000 of his own money raised through savings and various acting jobs in order to produce the film. When writing Townsend's first feature-length film The Five Heartbeats, Townsend and Wayans kept comedy an important aspect of the film, but also explored complex characters in a more dramatic way.[12] After extensive research with R&B singing group The Dells, who were renowned for their four-decade career, Townsend used his film to depict a similar story, following the lives of three friends who aspire to musical stardom.[2] Given the setting of the film, he was able to tie in other elements, such as race relations, as well.[2] Due to the production's budgetary constraints, Townsend used little-known actors of the time, with the exceptions of Leon Robinson, Diahann Carroll and Harold Nicholas of The Nicholas Brothers.[1]

Promotion[edit]

To promote the film prior to its release, Townsend, along with the other actors who portrayed the fictional musical quartet The Five Heartbeats (Leon Robinson, Michael Wright, Harry J. Lennix, and Tico Wells) performed in a concert with real-life Soul/R&B vocal group The Dells, one of many groups that inspired the film. The Dells sang and recorded the vocals as the actors lip synced.[13]

Soundtrack[edit]

The Five Heartbeats
(Music from the Motion Picture)
Soundtrack album by Various Artists
Released April 2, 1991
Genre R'n'B, Soul
Label Capitol[9][14]
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 3/5 stars[15]

A soundtrack for the film was released by Virgin Records, featuring original music by various artists. Both "Nights Like This" and "A Heart Is a House for Love" became top 20 hits on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart.[15] Many of the tracks are credited to fictional characters in the film as opposed to the actual vocalists.

  1. A Heart Is a House for Love - The Dells
  2. We Haven't Finished Yet - Patti LaBelle, Tressa Thomas, Billy Valentine
  3. Nights Like This - After 7
  4. Bring Back the Days - U.S. Male
  5. Baby Stop Running Around - Bird & The Midnight Falcons
  6. In the Middle - Dee Harvey
  7. Nothing But Love - The Dells with Billy Valentine
  8. Are You Ready for Me - Dee Harvey
  9. Stay in My Corner - The Dells
  10. I Feel Like Going On - Andre Crouch[14][15] (Eddie, Baby Doll and the L.A. Mass Choir)

Reception[edit]

The film grossed approximately $8,500,000[2][16] after being released in 862 theaters throughout North America. However, despite the film's moderate success, it was not well received by a majority of critics.[7] On Rotten Tomatoes The Five Heartbeats accumulated an average of 38%, although only 16 reviews were counted (6 of which were positive, the remaining 10 negative).[7]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times commented that:

Due to the nature of the film, music montages were often used to progress the plot; critics considered this a major flaw.[17]

The numerous musical performances in the film were highly acclaimed.[17] All Music complimented the Dells' lead singer Marvin Junior (who provided the singing voice for fictional character Eddie King, Jr.) stating that he was "one of the most underrated voices in pop music."[14] Tressa Thomas' performance of "We Haven't Finished Yet," in particular, was given favorable attention by critics.[18][19] The film received an ASCAP award for Most Performed Songs in a Motion Picture for the song "Nights Like This."[20]

DVD releases[edit]

A DVD was released for the film in 2002, a special edition was also released in 2006 for the film's 15th Anniversary which includes additional content.[9]

Footnotes[edit]

External links[edit]