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‘The Five Heartbeats’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 29, 1991

No one -- his immediate family members excluded -- will accuse Robert Townsend of being a master filmmaker. But as a performer, he's immensely likable. His face seems perpetually poised for comedy, ready to explode, light up or just plain mug. Even in repose, it invites you to grin. As a writer, also, he can be devilishly funny. He keeps a bony digit on the nervy pulse of black America and its crazy existential burden of pain and laughter, absurdity and enmity.

His latest work, "The Five Heartbeats," is a saga about the ups and downs of a traveling soul band. It starts with promising flair but gradually falls prey to sentimental ambition. Not content with being divertingly funny, the film takes on a bittersweet load of themes, from personal loyalty to racism in the music industry.

There'd be nothing wrong with this multipurpose approach if Townsend and coscreenwriter Keenen Ivory Wayans were up to the task. But their two-hour film knows no pace or restraint. Nor do they reveal anything about the evils of coke, booze and treachery that a thousand on-the-road movies -- and after-school specials -- haven't already told you. The misty-eyed quotient, in which Townsend and fellow Heartbeats Michael Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix and Tico Wells dance, sing, laugh and cry their way through the '60s, '70s and '80s, is also cloyingly high.

The story is about the band's slow rise to fame, with the help of its manager Chuck Patterson, his wife Diahann Carroll (still lovely after all these years) and choreographer Harold Nicholas. The band members also have to contend with double-dealing record executive Hawthorne James (whose pantomimic performance would embarrass a silent-movie director), Wright's substance addiction (a textbook Just-Say-No subplot), a woman-battle between brothers, the murder of a close associate, and a replacement lead singer (John Canada Terrell) who uses the Five Heartbeats for his own ends.

Although the hackneyed far outweighs the humorous, there are flashes everywhere of the comic talent that lit up Townsend and Wayans's "Hollywood Shuffle," as well as Wayans's current TV series, "In Living Color." At one point, Heartbeat lead singer Wright sustains a note so sexily, a woman in the audience practically twists herself into a croissant with passion. On another occasion, when a slinky female makes eyes at shy-boy Townsend, he grins back, but quickly casts a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure she's not looking at someone else.

Many other funny elements bear telling: the white, blond-wigged band (called "The Five Horsemen") that is suggested as a front for the Heartbeats, for one thing; the nonchalant way Townsend pulls out a crotch-stuffer from his tight pants after a show, for another.

But there's one scene with a distinctively Rooney-Garland touch, which works precisely because of its sentimentality. Townsend, the band's songwriter, is scrambling to write lyrics for an upcoming studio session on disparate scraps of paper. His kid sister (Tressa Thomas) picks up the wadded-up balls and starts singing from them. Realizing his sister's on to something, Townsend frantically keeps feeding her more lyrics from the floor and forgotten corners of his drawers, while she belts out what will become a huge hit for the band.

The vignette seems to encapsulate what Townsend-the-director was going for, a giddy mixture of comedy, music and drama. It's too bad there weren't more scenes like this.

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