Birth Year Films: The Five Heartbeats (1991)

Last year, on my 25th birthday, I started a new tradition by filling that day of the blog’s schedule with a film from the year I was born: 1991. Tomorrow, I turn 26. Since I don’t currently post on Saturdays, today I’m carrying on the tradition for a second year, with a review of The Five Heartbeats (1991).

(Image via Rotten Tomatoes)

At the end of June, I went through all of the streaming services I have access to and put together a list of potential Birth Year Films to cover today. I finally decided on The Five Heartbeats because it was not only released in 1991, but it’s a period film (set in the 1960s through early 1990s), and a musical. Perfect!

Directed by Robert Townsend and written by Townsend along with Keenen Ivory Wayans, the film follows the rise and fall of a Motown-inspired vocal group. The writers researched the histories of several real music groups and singers of the ’60s, most notably The Dells, as inspiration for the film.

The group at the center of the film is known as “The Five Heartbeats” or “the Heartbeats,” for short.

Duck (Robert Townsend), his brother J. T. (Leon), and their friends Choirboy (Tico Wells), Dresser (Harry Lennix), Eddie (Michael Wright), and Bobby (Lamont Johnson) have been signing together since high school. Performing in a local music contest, they lose, but their spirited performance and harmonies get them noticed by producer/manager Jimmy Potter (Chuck Patterson). Jimmy offers to take them on, and while they get off to a bit of a rough start, they soon find their songs being played on the radio.

Of course, with fame and fortune come plenty of problems. The drama that follows tracks the ups and downs, successes and failures, companionship and fights of the Heartbeats behind-the-scenes.

It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the music biz. For a talented group of singers, success brings in-fighting and drama. Problems crop up within the group, from love triangles to solo-career-seeking.

(Image via The Rogue Collection)

Utilizing a flashback structure, the film begins with Duck picking up the latest copy of Rolling Stone in the early ’90s, only to see his own former band on the cover. It’s a “Where are they now?” piece, which leads Duck down memory lane.

Larger themes like race relations in the mid-century, payola, greed, the temptations of fame, and discrimination within the industry are highlighted as the film travels through several decades. It’s truly a story of very high highs, and very low lows.

In one particularly heartbreaking scene, the band is pulled over by a cop on the way to a show. The cop, seeing their band decal on the driver’s side door, humiliatingly makes them “prove” they’re a singing group by having them perform on the side of the road. A somber mood follows as the men continue their drive, with one of the band members quietly singing “America the Beautiful” just after the encounter. Powerful.

Not everything is handled so seriously. One of the biggest laughs for me was “The Five Horsemen” — a white singing group brought in as potential recorders of the Heartbeats’ material. Their bright blonde wigs, general cheesiness, and over-enunciated singing style are a brilliant bit of satire. (And that reappearance at the end! I died.)

In the process of telling the band’s story, the film successfully portrays several decades not only by discussing real issues faced by musicians at the time, but by incorporating details like fashion trends and musical styles. All of these factors in combination generally do a great job of placing the story firmly in the past.

(Image via Soul Train)

The story itself, though at times melodramatic and at other times taking the expected turns, is engaging to watch throughout. This is thanks, in part, to the charisma and strong performances of the cast. My favorites of the bunch were Michael Wright as Eddie and Leon as J. T.

Adding to the film’s appeal are a very catchy soundtrack, and appearances by such stars as Harold Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers) and Diahann Carroll.

Despite all of the drama between the Heartbeats, and all of the ups and downs of their career, the film ends on a sweet note with a cute, feel-good resolution. It put a smile on my face, and I’d happily watch it again! (For those interested, it’s currently available on US Netflix.)

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