*/**** Image C Sound C Extras D
starring Robert Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix
screenplay by Robert Townsend & Keenan Ivory Wayans
directed by Robert Townsend
by Walter Chaw I remember when Robert Townsend was the Next Big Thing. An alum of Chicago comedy troupe Second City, he got eyed for A Soldier's Story and got his self-styled break with Hollywood Shuffle, a fitfully funny sketch farce about a starving black actor autobiographically frustrated by the lack of dignified roles for African-American performers. Townsend made waves by funding the project with credit cards, shooting without permits, and having the audacity (circa 1986, recall) to bite the hand that feeds. It's ironic, then, that with all his newfound greenlight sway, Townsend promptly made one really bad film (The Five Heartbeats) and another, somehow worse one (Meteor Man), both of which revealed this hyphenate of the moment for a mugging, self-obsessed, stage-bound monologist.
A once and future 'VH1 movie that rocks,' The Five Heartbeats follows the rise and fall of the titular fictitious Motown singing group headed up by velvet-tonsiled Eddie (Michael Wright) and Duck Matthews (Townsend), the proverbial "brains" of the outfit. The film is sometimes a musical, sometimes a civil-rights drama, sometimes "Behind the Music" tragicomedy, and always conspicuously performed and maudlin. At his best, Townsend reminds of that old Robin Williams routine wherein Williams pretends to converse with his own child: a masturbatory, semi-political routine dosed with a nauseating draught of trite sentimentality. There are just too many trembling moments of wounded pride and over-scripted polemical diatribes in The Five Heartbeats, its nadir arriving when the guys are picked up by the evil Georgia police and Duck mournfully sings "America the Beautiful" in the back of a cruiser.
The film's plot is so familiar that there's really no reason to see it. The boys triumph over a hostile audience at an unnamed Apollo, get a manager, get a record deal, freak out when they hear their song for the first time on the radio, get flashy cars, get messed up on nose candy, sleep with too many women, sleep with each other's fiancés, have public embarrassments and private holocausts... It's the usual rags to riches to rags to suburbia narrated by meaningless bylines ("Macon, GA - 1965") and pocket epiphanies and scored by horrendously lip-synched musical numbers vastly inferior to actual Motown product. The Five Heartbeats almost affronts the legacy it seeks to celebrate.
The movie is overlong and overreaching, two-plus hours of hackneyed performances, inept staging, and inauthentic period details. A revue of the hoariest clichés, The Five Heartbeats is, in a nutshell, the world's most long-winded community theatre production. Townsend is neither a decent director nor a compelling performer nor a good writer (he shares scripting duties with Keenan Ivory Wayans here), and this film is the result more of an injudicious conviction of substance than any actual insight or quality.
Fox DVD offers The Five Heartbeats in a murky and edge-enhanced 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer obscured by a thin film of dirt throughout. (See chapter 11 for a particularly offensive ten minutes.) The colours, however, are rich and distinct, a valiant effort on the part of the telecine operators, who clearly didn't have adequate elements with which to work. For as rough as the video quality is, two un-scrubbed featurettes demonstrate how bad it could have been--they are as good a testament to the efforts of the techies as any. The soundstage is tragically under-utilized with the disc's Dolby Digital 4.0 mix. Almost all of the information is delivered via the centre channel: the insipid tunes, the vapid dialogue, the ambient crowd noises--all of it. It's pretty clear, to be sure, but with the possibilities of digital audio being what they are, and despite the limitations of a mono surround signal, the sound is deeply disappointing.
A four-and-a-half minute featurette plays like an extended trailer alternating with shots of Townsend "directing" the show by doing bits from his maudlin stand-up routine, and a two-minute "Profile of Robert Townsend" features an interview with the man who makes the prediction that "ten years from now people will be watching this film." He should have said "a person," and, yes, I was. A remastered trailer, three TV spots, the FoxFlix introductory trailer reel, and previews for Carmen Jones, The Rose, and Bob Fosse's awesome All That Jazz round out the disc. At present, only Carmen Jones is available on the DVD format. Originally published: March 1, 2002.