Robert Townsend’s first feature film, Hollywood Shuffle (1987), brilliantly satirized the movie industry’s treatment of black actors. As writer, director and star of that hit, made for just $100,000, Townsend attacked Hollywood from the outside with such flair that he earned an opportunity to work on the inside. With Spike Lee, he now belongs to the rarefied ranks of black Americans who have directed movies for major studios. Townsend’s new feature, The Five Heartbeats, made for 20th CenturyFox, is the sprawling saga of a fictitious black vocal group similar to the Temptations. Sadly, it tries to be too many movies at once: a musical comedy, a serious drama, an ardent history lesson and a sweet slice of nostalgia. The components do not harmonize.
The scale of Townsend’s ambition is evident from the opening scene. It is 1965. The Heartbeats nervously take the stage at a talent contest without their lead singer, Eddie (Michael Wright), who is detained at a poker game. Fleeing after a violent argument, Eddie leaps through a plate-glass window, gets shot in the leg and bounces off a moving car before reach-
ing the club, where he slides onto the stage just in time.
It is a wonderfully improbable sequence, but the movie does not live up to its giddy spirit. Instead, it gets bogged down in the soap-opera lives of its five protagonists. Most prominent are Duck (Townsend), the group’s sensitive songwriter, his brother, J. T. (Leon), an incorrigible womanizer, and Eddie, who risks his career for cocaine. The trite script traces the rise and fall of the Heartbeats over several decades. A composite history, the story dutifully dramatizes the injustices that black musicians have suffered, ranging from police harassment to the virtual theft of songs by unscrupulous record company executives.
The actors playing the Heartbeats do not sing their own vocals, but some of their stage performances are electrifying. And in some scenes, Townsend seems on the verge of pushing the movie into full-scale musical comedy. Instead, satire gives way to melodrama, then to sentiment. In his first Hollywood movie, Townsend seems torn by conflicting responsibilities. The Five Heartbeats—a Motown morality play dressed up as Hollywood entertainment—never finds its own rhythm.
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