The Five Heartbeats

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The Five Heartbeats
The Five Heartbeats.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Townsend[1]
Produced byChristina Schmidlin
Robert Townsend
Kokayi Ampah
Loretha C. Jones[2]
Written byRobert Townsend
Keenen Ivory Wayans[3]
Music byStanley Clarke
CinematographyBill Dill
Edited byJohn Carter
Distributed by20th Century Fox[4]
Release date
  • March 29, 1991 (1991-03-29) (U.S.)[5]
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$8,750,400

The Five Heartbeats is a 1991 musical comedy-drama film directed by Robert Townsend, who co-wrote the script with Keenen Ivory Wayans. Produced and 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 rhythm and blues vocal group The Five Heartbeats. The film depicts the rise and fall of a Motown inspired soul act through the eyes of one of the Heartbeats, Donald "Duck" Matthews.

The film was released to most North American audiences on March 29, 1991;[7] 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.[8] The movie received mixed reviews from critics.[9][10]


Donald "Duck" Matthews, Anthony "Choirboy" Stone, J.T. Matthews, Terrence "Dresser" Williams, and Eddie Kane Jr. perform at a Battle of the Bands contest as The Heartbeats. The group loses to Flash and the Ebony Sparks but pleases the crowd and is noticed by Jimmy Potter. Jimmy offers to manage the group, promising them $100 if they do not win the next month's Battle of the Bands contest. After the group loses, Jimmy pays them. When the owner of the club asks to hire them, they agree to let Jimmy manage them.

Bird and The Midnight Falcons witness the Heartbeats rehearsing for a competition and are concerned they could lose; frontman Victor "Bird" Thomas asks his girlfriend to invite her friends and boo The Heartbeats while cheering The Falcons. The announcer, a cousin of one of the Falcons, forces The Heartbeats to use the house piano player. Duck grows frustrated with the house player's poor playing, and shoves him off the piano stool. Eddie leads the group in a number that results in Bird's girlfriend fainting in Eddie's arms. The Heartbeats win the contest and the interest of Big Red Davis, who owns Big Red Records. Big Red offers them a deal, but Jimmy and his wife Eleanor, aware of Big Red's corruption, decline. The group instead releases their first single on Jimmy's own independent label and searches for a record company they can trust, but no one else is interested aside from a label which wants to buy Duck's songs for a group they've already signed, The Five Horsemen, prompting the Heartbeats to sign with Big Red.

The group goes on the road, but the travel is marred by racism and poor living conditions. Dresser's girlfriend visits and reveals she is pregnant, and the group is faced with their first album cover featuring white people, despite the label having earlier approved a photo of the Heartbeats as the cover.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1960s The Five Heartbeats receive numerous awards, chart several hits, and are featured on magazine covers. Eddie, however, starts abusing alcohol and cocaine, affecting his performance and prompting his girlfriend Baby Doll to break up with him. Convinced that Jimmy intends to replace him due to his deteriorating condition, he cuts a deal with Big Red to have Jimmy cut out of his contract. In retaliation, Jimmy threatens to go to the authorities with information about bootlegged LPs, cooked books, and payola that could have Big Red arrested, leading Red to have Jimmy killed in a hit disguised as an accident. Soon after Jimmy's funeral, the group learns that Eddie's deceit caused the fallout between Jimmy and Big Red. Big Red is eventually convicted of Jimmy's murder, forcing the group to sign with a new record label, and causing a guilt-ridden Eddie to leave in disgrace. By the early 1970s, Eddie has turned up at several Heartbeats concerts to try to convince his friends to let him back into the group, but his substance abuse has taken its toll on him by this time, and all the other Heartbeats can do is supply him with money out of sympathy; Duck later hears on the radio that Eddie was involved in an armed robbery and, after a shootout with the police, was in critical condition.

The Heartbeats add Flash as their lead singer. Duck comes to suspect his fiancé, Tanya Sawyer, is having an affair with Choirboy. He follows her to a hotel, only to discover that Tanya is meeting with J.T., not Choirboy. Tanya's relationship with J.T. predates her relationship with Duck, but she says she is now in love with Duck. J.T. urges Tanya to disclose the affair, but she refuses. At an awards ceremony celebrating their success, Flash announces he is going solo. Duck reveals that he knows about Tanya and J.T. and also leaves the group, resulting in the Heartbeats' disbandment.

The film then skips ahead to the early 1990s. Choirboy, true to his nickname, has returned to singing in his father's church. After converting to Christianity, Eddie has since become clean and sober. He is now married to Baby Doll, sings in Choirboy's choir, and manages a group. He asks Duck to write songs for them, to which Duck agrees. J.T. has a wife and two children, including a son named "Duck". The brothers reconcile. The only member to have maintained a singing career is Flash, who transitioned from doo-wop to pop music, and is part of the group Flash and The Five Horsemen.

At a family gathering, Eleanor Potter, coming to terms with her husband's death, forgives Eddie. The Five Heartbeats reunite in front of their families and friends, as they try to show off 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 Robinson as J.T. Matthews: J.T. is the older brother of Duck. A womanizer; he and his brother Duck share a close and sometimes turbulent relationship.
  • Michael Wright as Eddie King, 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. He 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. Similar to David Ruffin, Eddie is the lead vocalist of the band and falls into a life of drugs and alcohol that eventually leads to his expulsion from the group as well as emotional trauma. After hitting rock-bottom several times, he eventually converts to Christianity, cleans and sobers himself up, marries his longtime sweetheart Baby Doll, and manages his own group.
  • Tico Wells as Anthony "Choirboy" Stone: Stone is given the nickname "Choirboy" (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." He becomes more of a womanizer as the group becomes more successful, but later goes back to being a part of his father's ministry after the group disbands.
  • 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 Victor "Bird" Thomas: 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, who was previously attacked and intimidated by Big Red during a party, 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. 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 Williams: 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: Duck's love interest. His earlier attempts to win her heart are unsuccessful but they reconnect at a party for the group and later date. Tanya and Duck were set to be wed, but Duck's suspicion about Tanya and Choir Boy had him follow her to a hotel 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. They would later sign with Big Red Records along with the Five 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.


After writing (along with Keenen 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 studio 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.[11]

The Five Heartbeats was originally set up as a development deal at Warner Bros. in 1988, with Keenan Ivory Wayans, his brother Damon, and others tapped to star.[12] Warner passed on the project, and the Wayans moved on to develop and star in the Fox sketch comedy show In Living Color instead.[12]

Townsend resurrected Heartbeats at 20th Century Fox in 1990.[12] Years before, Townsend had had a small role as a member of the fictional Motown-style group "The Sorels" in the 1984 film Streets of Fire. His original screenplay was inspired by the lives and careers of Motown group The Temptations, and Townsend had met with former lead singers David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick with the intention of hiring them as technical advisors.[12] Fox vetoed bringing Ruffin and Kendrick onto the production, for fear that Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. might sue the studio.[12] Rhythm and blues-singing group The Dells, who were renowned for their four-decade career, became the technical advisors instead.

Townsend used his film to depict a similar story to the careers of the Temptations and the Dells, following the lives of three friends who aspire to musical stardom.[13] Given the setting of the film, he was able to tie in other elements, such as race relations, as well.[13]

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] Townsend had considered Denzel Washington as Eddie Kane, Jr. and Whitney Houston as Baby Doll.[12] The former was not cast due to budget concerns and the latter passed on the role as it was felt to be too small.[12]


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.[14]


The Five Heartbeats
(Music from the Motion Picture)
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
ReleasedApril 2, 1991
GenreR&B, soul
Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic3/5 stars[16]

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.[16] Many of the tracks are credited to fictional characters in the film as opposed to the actual vocalists. After 7's "Nights like This" won the film an ASCAP Award.[17]

  1. A Heart Is a House for Love - Billy Valentine/ 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 - Andraé Crouch[15][16] (Eddie, Baby Doll and the L.A. Mass Choir)


The film grossed approximately $8.5 million[13][18] 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.[19] On Rotten Tomatoes The Five Heartbeats accumulated an average of 39%, although only 18 reviews were counted (6 of which were positive, the remaining 12 negative).[19]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times commented that: feature length, Townsend shows a real talent, and, not surprisingly, an ability to avoid most cliches, to go for the human truth in his the end we really care about these guys...There is one obligatory scene showing racial prejudice against the group, and it seems a little tacked on, as if the only purpose of the Southern trip was to justify the scene.[10]

Due to the nature of the film, music montages were often used to progress the plot; critics considered this a major flaw.[20]

The numerous musical performances in the film were highly acclaimed.[20] All Music complimented the Dells' lead singer Marvin Junior (who provided the singing voice for fictional character Eddie Kane Jr.) stating that he was "one of the most underrated voices in pop music."[15] Tressa Thomas' performance of "We Haven't Finished Yet," in particular, was given favorable attention by critics.[21][22] The film received an ASCAP award for Most Performed Songs in a Motion Picture for the song "Nights Like This."[23]

DVD releases[edit]

A DVD was released for the film in 2002, a special edition was also released in 2007 for the film's 15th Anniversary which includes additional content.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^
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  4. ^ a b c
  5. ^[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ Erickson, Hal. "The Five Heartbeats: Overview". MSN. Microsoft. Archived from the original on 2014-07-30. Retrieved 2019-02-15. Loosely based on the life and times of several R&B; artists (The Dells, The Temptations, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke and others) The Five Heartbeats traces the rise and fall of a popular African-American 1960s singing aggregation.
  7. ^[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^,M1
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Townsend, Robert (Director) (August 27, 2018). Making The Five Heartbeats (Motion picture). Hollywood: Green Lighthouse.
  13. ^ a b c
  14. ^,,313030,00.html
  15. ^ a b c
  16. ^ a b c,,86336,00.html
  17. ^ Jet Vol. 109, No. 4 'The Five Heartbeats' Celebrates 15th Anniversary With Special DVD. "Also written by Keenen Ivory Wayans, the film won an ASCAP Award for the song, Nights Like This. "
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^ a b
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  22. ^,,313751,00.html
  23. ^

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