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‘The Five Heartbeats’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 29, 1991

The spirit of Robert Townsend's "The Five Heartbeats" is one of celebration, but the party turns out to be a pretty dull affair.

The picture chronicles the rise of a musical group during the mid-'60s from poor inner-city amateurs with a dream to gold-record big-timers, and what one would hope for from Townsend (and his co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans) is a fresh take on the conventional stairway-to-stardom scenario -- a film charged with a genuine enthusiasm for the music of the period and the black culture that gave birth to it.

But "The Five Heartbeats" is fatally entangled in show biz banalities; it's got that "A Star Is Born" disease. The five neighborhood friends, pulled together by their songwriter leader, Duck (Townsend), climb out of the obscurity of the streets against impossible odds. They face rigged talent competitions, corrupt record company executives, bigotry, drugs, infighting and even murder. From the evidence here, though, success comes relatively easily. There's very little genuine struggle in their struggle; the adversities they face are set in place merely to be overcome, triumphantly, in classic Hollywood style, or to demonstrate the brutal emptiness of fame. Win a talent contest, get a manager, sign a record deal, get your picture on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Esquire -- hey, this music game's a snap.

Townsend hits these narrative notes, but they are off-key and his phrasing is clumsy and jumbled. Though he provides dates, the events seem dislodged in time, and he can't seem to sustain a dramatic moment or bring an idea to its full resolution. Issues -- such as a record company's attempt to turn the Heartbeats into a "crossover" group by putting a picture of white sunbathers on their album cover -- are introduced, given lip service and then dropped.

Townsend can't seem to give the action any social context, either. During this period, tremendous changes were taking place in black America, but Townsend documents them only with a cursory scene in which the band is stopped by white policemen while on tour and made to sing to prove that they are really musicians. The creative explosion in black music, too, is completely ignored; from what's on screen here, you'd think that there were only two harmonizing singing groups out there, the Heartbeats and their rivals, Flash and the Ebony Sparks.

What's most puzzling is how little feel Townsend has for the music itself. Aside from the great soul standards on the soundtrack, the numbers are unremarkable; there's not a memorable tune in the bunch. Very few numbers are presented in their entirety, and almost no one does his own singing. (All the Heartbeats have voice doubles.) On only one occasion -- when Duck and his little sister (Tressa Thomas) compose a song together -- does the music get inside us and give us a lift. Even so, though the 12-year-old Thomas has killer pipes, the scene, which shows Duck scrambling around for the lyrics he's scribbled down on scraps of paper, is hopelessly cornball, as if it had been lifted straight out of a '40s Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musical.

While the hackneyed naivete of the script might be excused as a kind of secondhand innocence, the one-dimensionality of the characters springs out of plain old ineptitude. Each group member is allowed only one signature characteristic and nothing more. Choirboy (Tico Wells) is the devoutly religious son of a minister who must come to grips with his secular profession; Duck's brother, J.T. (Leon), is a compulsive womanizer; Duck is a nerd, etc. And some of the characters, particularly the women, aren't even allowed that.

Many of these young actors are charismatic, but Townsend is so incapable of showcasing their talents that at times they look lost, perhaps even a little embarrassed by what they're asked to play. Townsend's own talents are perhaps too unformed to deserve a showcase, and he certainly can't provide one for himself. Townsend has ambition and a sizable comic gift, but in "The Five Heartbeats" the latter isn't much on display, and the former isn't enough to carry him.

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