Robert Townsend’s 1991 R&B drama, The Five Heartbeats, was loosely based on the lives of several artists; The Dells, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke, and David Ruffin, but to many it mirrors the career arc of The Temptations.
The Five Heartbeats spans three decades of a singing group (vocals were done in real life by the R&B group The Dells), and was directed by Robert Townsend in 1991. Many fans and critics believed that this marked the beginning of a solid Black film renaissance in the 90’s, that had been missing since it’s pinnacle in the 70’s. It staunchly remains a community favorite, and doesn’t seem to show any signs of losing its place in our personal movie collections. Almost everyone has seen it once, (and most of them multiple times.) Here are 5 reasons why:
1) This film combines a little bit of everything; comedy, romance, serious choreography, black and white sequences, sometimes awkward and ill-advised drama, montages, and lots and lots and lots of music. Through all of this, the situations are directly related to us; our burden of racism, our struggles with friends and family, losing loved ones to drugs, and the natural creativity and contribution to the world of music that is so specifically and monumentally ours.
2) The pivotal star making scenes of the 5 Heartbeats; the moment on stage when they just decide to go back to their roots and not listen to anyone else that propels them into a whole new stratosphere, the first time they hear themselves on the radio, in the office when they sign a record deal, their first performance with their new lead singer in the 70’s…the excitement is palpable through the screen and makes the viewer’s heart race a bit. You genuinely care about the characters, and you are as thrilled as they are about the makings and processes of becoming huge stars.
3) The quality crew behind the scenes reflects quality in front of the camera. This film was written by Robert Townsend and Keenan-Ivory Wayans, the beautiful clothes were designed by award winning costumer Ruthe Carter, the music supervision was devised under the very talented hands of George Duke and Stanley Clarke, the cast was chosen by Hollywood icon Jaki Brown, and the amazing choreography was helmed by Michael Peters, who choreographed many of Michael Jackson’s videos. It would be hard with this lot to make a film that would fall flat; it was destined to endure.
4) It is kind of fun to see how many cliches are in the movie–it would actually make a great drinking game. There’s the first charming but eventually evil and double-crossing record producer, the swirling newspapers and magazine covers as their stardom grows, the scene where someone says “Hey! They’re playing our song on the radio!” The transitions of time are told not through genuine narrative, but by hair; pompadours, wig elaboration and size, afros, moustache and beard length and cut. And of course, ye olde church redemption scene at the end. But the film is so sweet, even the cliches are endearing.
5) The cast. This film is maybe the only one in history where you will see a quality performance from the likes of Michael Wright (who plays David Ruffin-like Eddie Caine), spot Theresa Randall saying absolutely nothing, witness Diahann Carroll slapping someone in the face, and see Tico Wells (who plays Choirboy) in…well…anything. Leon predictably oozes whatever it is he is always oozing, John Witherspoon is funny as usual, and Harry Lennix is more handsome than 80% of the working actors today. But most importantly, it reminds us of how much we miss Robert Townsend in front of the camera, as well as behind it, because if nothing else, he did his very best to make quality films by us, for us, and all about us.