In The Five Heartbeats (R), the young writer director Robert Townsend taps into one of the most exuberant chapters in pop-music history. The movie is about a fictional group of black musicians — the Five Heartbeats — who emerge in the mid-’60s with a set of suavely sexy dance moves, clothes to die for, and a sound that blends the unbridled emotionalism of classic soul with a delectably slick and upbeat surface. In other words, it’s about a group that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Spinners, the Coasters, and most of all, the legendary Motown ensembles (the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Miracles) — those crooning poets of Top-40 romanticism whose best singles were three-minute slices of pop rapture.
Townsend seems like the last director who should be taking on such a project. His first feature, Hollywood Shuffle (1987), was a rudely hilarious satire of movieland racism — a peppy and likable movie, but nothing more, really, than a comic sketchbook. The Five Heartbeats, by contrast, is hugely ambitious. The film is crammed with characters and subplots; it’s got comedy, drama, and some smartly produced musical numbers; and it follows the title group over a period of two decades. We’re shown their beginnings in inner-city talent shows, their tumultuous hit-single days in the ’60s, their early-’70s comeback (complete with bell-bottoms and Afros), and their retirement. One has to applaud the fact that Townsend ever got this movie made. For black audiences accustomed to being ignored by Hollywood, it may be a revelation to see the Motown myth given such a glossy, big-screen treatment. Yet even as you root for The Five Heartbeats, the movie itself seems little more than an enthusiastic hodgepodge of show-biz clichés.
At first, the film looks promising. In an early scene, we see the group onstage doing an up-tempo number called ”Nothing But Love.” The interplay between the voices, with each singer trying to outdo the last one, produces a slowly escalating delirium. Townsend captures the ecstatic insurgency of ’60s soul — the way the singers seemed to be pushing their voices to the limit, and doing so with a confidence and control that made their brazenness seem witty. We also get a sense of how erotic those deceptively decorous Motown dance moves were.
Soon, we’re introduced to the band: Eddie (Michael Wright), the dynamic and troubled lead singer; Duck (played by Townsend himself), the earnest, slightly gawky songwriter; his brother, J.T. (played by an actor known as Leon, who was the Christ figure in Madonna’s ”Like a Prayer” video), a rambunctious womanizer; Choirboy (Tico Wells), the group’s most religious member, who boasts an angelic falsetto; and the unobtrusive Dresser (Harry J. Lennix), who becomes a devoted family man. The early scenes have a catchy, let’s-put-on-a-show spirit, and so the utter one-dimensionality of the characters doesn’t seem that bothersome. At one point, Duck is in his bedroom scrawling lyrics on a crumpled piece of paper when his little sister grabs the paper from his hand and bursts into song. This stylized sequence comes out of nowhere — it’s like something from a ’40s musical — but 12-year-old Tressa Thomas sings with the electrifying purity of the prepubescent Michael Jackson, and she carries you right along.
As it turns out, though, Townsend isn’t trying to make an upbeat musical. The group is signed to a record contract by Big Red (Hawthorne James), a murderous exploiter who looks like a mulatto version of Flattop. He keeps most of the profits for himself, and so when the Heartbeats are on the road, they have to stay in sleazy dives. Then Eddie, who knows he’s the group’s drawing card, teams up with Big Red in order to muscle out the group’s nice-guy manager (Chuck Patterson).
Yet all of this seems melodramatic and overblown. It hardly makes sense that a famous black pop band of the mid-’60s would have remained hitched to a one-man record company like Big Red’s. By creating this convenient, all-too-hissable villain, Townsend misses a chance to showcase the more complexly exploitative operations of the recording industry. (Was he scared of taking on Motown honcho Berry Gordy?) Townsend likes everything neat and clean. In his eyes, there isn’t a dramatic conflict that can’t be wrapped up in a scene or two. The Five Heartbeats leapfrogs from one mini-dilemma to the next, so that even when the movie turns ”dark,” it feels airless and homogenized. In one scene, Eddie is snorting cocaine — for the first time in the movie — and then, 20 seconds later, his girlfriend is in the dressing room saying, ”I won’t sit here and let you destroy yourself!”
Eddie’s downfall is fairly hokey, but it’s also the only dramatic element in the movie, since Michael Wright, who plays him, gives a stunning performance. Onstage, Eddie is the most romantic member of the group. Wright makes him sleek, with undercurrents of hostility and danger. Later, after Eddie has been cast out, there’s a terrific bit in which he shows up after one of the Heartbeats’ gigs, homeless and out of it.
Most of the time, though, Townsend seems torn between showing us the gritty underside of the pop life and ladling on the sweetness and light (especially in the shamelessly ”redemptive” finale). And so the movie, rather than plunging into its subject, stays naggingly on the surface. It’s easy to respond to the enthusiasm behind The Five Heartbeats. The movie wants to pay tribute to the healing spirituality of black pop, and Townsend is right to frame the story as a celebration of endurance. Still, for all his good intentions, he fails to do justice to the depth of feeling that defined the great crossover groups of the ’60s. If the movie is a hit, his triumph will be an ironic one. For what Townsend finally proves is that one of the most dramatically compelling eras in black pop history can now be wedged into the cornball-synthetic formulas Hollywood has thrived on for decades.