The Five Heartbeats (1991)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Showbiz Drama, Family Drama, Musical Drama, Film a Clef  |   Release Date - Mar 29, 1991 (USA)  |   Run Time - 121 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Derek Armstrong

When filming the big-screen adaptation of Dreamgirls (2006), Bill Condon undoubtedly used the Broadway staging of that musical as his template. But he could very well have been using The Five Heartbeats. In fact, Robert Townsend's 1991 labor-of-love, considerably less heralded than Condon's film, is a truer and more fulfilling "making of a Motown supergroup" movie. The films have so many surface similarities -- the tentative rise in the ranks, the windy road to success, the inevitable disappointments of fame -- that one must go deeper to determine why The Five Heartbeats works better as a narrative. Townsend himself may be the difference, but it's not because he, an African-American, has a more legitimate perspective on the material; Condon has repeatedly proven himself a consummately sensitive interpreter. Rather, it speaks more to the fact that this was the prestige project beating deep in Townsend's chest while he was toiling away on comedies -- comedies that may not have been as important to him as this project clearly was. (It's worth noting that he may have experienced an exhaustion akin to that felt by his well-traveled Heartbeats, as his next two theatrical directing projects were the dud comedies The Meteor Man and B.A.P.S., after which he made the permanent switch to directing TV). In his short-lived apex as a director, Townsend gathers together earnest, energetic performances from a spectrum of impressive actors, who add true dimension to the simpler parts of the script. Then again, The Five Heartbeats is a reminder that simple isn't necessarily bad. Townsend has made sort of the definitive version of the tumultuous band movie, one that shows his love for music and the depth of his soul. He doesn't always surprise with his choices, but he's helped establish some genre standards worth imitating.