The Five Heartbeats -
A Movie Review

The Five Heartbeats movie

Directed by Robert Townsend, 1991

The Five Heartbeats are the swoon-inducing singers of this fictional rags-to-riches biography. With the Dells as technical advisers and they plus doubtless other classic soul groups as inspiration, the movie is bound to feel familiar.

As oldies fans know, familiarity isn't always a bad thing! But in a film, it can be suspense-draining when so many scenes and characterizations mirror what appears elsewhere. The talent show. The new manager. The first hit. The hedonism and intragroup conflict. You can have some fun connecting people and events to real life, but overall you know where it's all going.

Or do you? Despite the predictable story arc, some plotting choices surprised me. Dramatic turns and anticipated battles play out quickly, with few fireworks or entirely off screen.

On one hand, I'm glad writer/producer/director/star/whew! Robert Townsend and screenplay partner Keenen Ivory Wayans kept The Five Heartbeats moving. Otherwise, they might have needed four hours to tell their story, like NBC's Temptations miniseries did later.

On the other hand, what gets skipped is adequate setup for certain character decisions and traits. Arrogance suddenly becomes guilt. Flamboyance turns into ruthless evil and then predatory sleaziness. It's vivid but puzzling to see bad go good or bad get cartoonishly badder.

The Five Heartbeats soundtrack
Now on to just the good in this movie. The cast, which includes the director, Michael Wright, Leon (later in The Temptations and Townsend's Little Richard) and Diahann Carroll, does pretty well with the material.

The most impressive performances occur during the musical numbers. From costumes to choreography, the Five Heartbeats might as well be a real Motown group. The energetic staging and shifting, layered harmonies make the singers and their rivals extra-persuasive. Best of all, the Five Heartbeats soundtrack consists of original songs that sound soulfully authentic--unlike, say, the show tunes of Dreamgirls.

Indeed, when one scene between songwriter Duck (played by Townsend) and his big-voiced little sister (Tressa Thomas) trades realism for theatrical showmanship, it's clear that the real reason to watch this movie is for the music.

The Five Heartbeats
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But do I really recommend it? Despite its weaknesses, it's an earnestly satisfying story, worth seeing to sate your appetite for musical nostalgia. Just don't watch it in critic mode like I did!

To review (and re-re-re-view) the film yourself, you could try The Five Heartbeats DVD. But if one frame of these gentlemen is enough to make you happy, this poster might do.

Want to compare the Five Heartbeats movie to the real Temptations saga and other Motown tales? Click here for more film/TV reviews.

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