The concept of the musical biopic is nothing new. We have seen many films come and go, some good and some bad. A majority of these musical biopic films try to tell the rising of a group, whether or not the group is a reality, in a manner that will connect with the audience. Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats is a prime example of a film that connects with its audience by taking this concept of the musical biopic just that one step further than we might expect from a film like this.
The Five Hea…tbeats are a nineteen-sixties Motown type singing group that consists of lead singer Eddie (Michael Wright), songwriter ‘Duck’ Matthews (Robert Townsend), ladies’ man J.T. Matthews (Leon), bassman ‘Dresser’ Williams (Harry J. Lennix), and tenor ‘Choirboy’ Stone (Tico Wells). These guys start out by singing on streets corners. Enter big shot manager (Chuck Patterson). Potter nails them a record deal and gets them to perform everywhere leading to super exposure and stardom. Naturally with stardom, comes the rocky road one travels on. The road consists of internal conflict between the band members and producers, drug addiction, racism, and even a close death. This all occurs before the groups untimely end in the mid nineteen-seventies.
Now this may not sound that different from the usual musical biopic, but what is different is how Townsend deals with each group member on a separate level giving them each their own problems and solutions. This is not just a film with some background singing, but rather a film that shows the rise of five poor black men to stardom and how they deal with it. The screenplay is by Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans. The film begins some 25 or 30 years ago with a few kids, two of them brothers. The first few scenes can be a bit confusing as we tend to jump around from brother to brother, but once Townsend gets in his groove, everything begins to flow in the right direction.
The biggest problem comes to Eddie, who has the real singing power of the group. Eddie is not only the best singer of the group, he is also the one with the biggest ego of the group always thinking he is being attacked by his fellow members. Eddie begins to miss big performance dates leading to the group having to drop him. There is one particularly interesting scene where Eddie comes stumbling up to a limo with his four previous band members inside. He asks them for some help, but they don’t do anything. This scene signals the ultimate fate for poor Eddie. Eddie now realizes what he did wrong, but it is far too late to make up.
All the other characters come off as bright individuals who know how to deal with what was put on their plate in a respectful manner. We see moments with family, moments of pregnancies, moments of heartbreaks, all of which come off as something we would experience in everyday. That is what makes this film interesting. Townsend presents these characters in manners that we can all connect with. We sometimes tend to get so into these characters’ thoughts and scenes, that we think they could be someone we could know.
Townsend is able to create a story with characters that we grow and almost care for thinking they may be one of our close relatives. Townsend is able to avoid the usual musical biopic clichés of showing a quick rise and fall of a band member, only to have them get back together at the end. He shows human strength in all of his characters. Due to this, The Five Heartbeats comes off as a pretty entertaining film.
The Five Heartbeats is presented in an 1:85:1 Widescreen Anamorphic Aspect Ratio. The image is fairly clear and bright. I remember seeing the original version back when it came out in 2002 and remember seeing a lot of grainy areas. This 15th Anniversary Edition has a few areas of grain still, which is a disappointment considering this is a re-issue. Also, since this film takes place in the 60’s, some of the scenes have a grungy look to them, but perhaps this is done on an artistic feel. While the image is pretty solid overall, I feel more could have been done.
We are given A Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround Sound Audio Track. This track sounds really spectacular. Since this film features a lot of musical performances, we expect a majority of the musical scenes to sound crisp and clear. This is exactly how they sound. The music is up-lifting and is a real pleasure to listen to. Since this is only a 4 channel audio track, a majority of the dialogue comes off very nice. Don’t expect too much bass response here but that doesn’t really matter much since this type of music really doesn’t have much bass to it. This audio track reminds me of Streets of Fire in that it is a audio track you can just listen to in the background. What a exemplary track.
We are given a nice host of special features including an interesting extended branching option.
- Meet the Five Heartbeats: This 9 minutes feature has to do with the original actors commenting on the movie they worked on.
- In The Studio: We here from Steve Tyrell about the film’s music in this 5 minute feature.
- The Look: In this 5 minute feature, we take a look into the makeup and design used on the actors to get them ready for a day’s work.
- The Director’s Process: In this 11 minute feature, we hear from Director Robert Townsend about the concept and his thoughts on making the film. His biggest challenge was trying to create a period piece while keeping his beliefs in tack.
- The Nomination: This brief 2 minute feature has to do with the original group’s nomination for Best Album (Grammy).
- Original Five Heartbeats Featurette: This 5 minute feature has to do with a look back at the original group with a 1960’s feel. A basic making of.
- Robert Townsend Profile: This brief 2 minute feature looks into the role that Townsend had on the film as actor, writer and director.
- TV Spots: Here we get 3 TV spots entitled He, Harmony, and Special.
- Trailer: Here we get the Theatrical Trailer for the film.
- Deleted Scenes: Now what is interesting about this is that you can either watch the deleted scenes separately or incorporated back into the film. The first of four scenes entitled Y’all Should Have Given Me A Chance deals with a random person yelling at the audience for not giving him a chance to do his puppet act. The second of four scenes entitled Who Sings Falsetto has to do with the five actors trying to do a Falsetto to find out which has the false Falsetto. The third of four scenes entitled What Are Your Specialties? has to down with each of the singers being asked what other talents they have. The final scene entitled These Girls Have Been Gone For Three Hours has to do with one of the band members remarking how he came so close to kissing his date. Overall, the deleted scenes don’t really add much to the story of the film, but it is definitely nice to see them incorporated back into the film.
The Five Heartbeats is a fine, up-lifting film. Even though this type of movie has been done before, Townsend’s look into this topic is far more interesting because he creates characters we want to care about. Characters that give off performances that we want to listen to again. The only real shame here is the video transfer which is a big disappointment. However, I do recommend this film solely for the music as it makes the film a nice way to spend 2 hours.
Special Features List
- Meet The Five Heartbeats
- In The Studio
- The Look
- The Director
- The Nomination
- Original Five Heartbeats Feature
- Robert Townsend Profile
- TV Spots
- Deleted Scenes