By Odienator (click here for all posts)
Last year, I went after some of the movies Black folks love, taking them to task for various offenses. As the 2009 Black History Mumf draws to a close, I offer my readers the chance to take me to similar task. Miss Ross and I made up earlier this month, but I got a lot of hate mail for dissing Irene Cara’s dress. So for those who thought I was mean to Sparkle, here’s your revenge. The Five Heartbeats is MY Sparkle. Much has been written about the film, most of it negative, but when I first saw it in 1991, I fell in love with it. I own a copy of the soundtrack which, excepting School Daze’s soundtrack, is the most played soundtrack in my collection. I own the 15th anniversary DVD as well. For those unfamiliar with the film, this next sentence may send you running for the exit:
Tyler Perry must have seen this movie.
The Five Heartbeats has a lot in common with the films and plays of Tyler Perry, though it is far better crafted than anything with Perry’s name on it. It has elements of comedy, drama, melodrama and music, plus a brief foray into a Christian theme of redemption. It is peopled with actors who, for the most part, were not household names in 1991. Heartbeats makes no attempt to disguise that it’s an audience pleaser, and the audience it aims for is similar to the one that bought Tyler Perry his mansion. As it spins its tale, many plot elements are historical shorthand for events that befell numerous soul singers and groups during the film’s 30 year time frame; the more one knows about the trials and tribulations of Black music, the more entertaining The Five Heartbeats becomes.
After Hollywood Shuffle, writers Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans scripted a story about a fictional singing group’s rise to the top. It started out as a comedy, but as Townsend and company did more research and interviews with musicians of that era, they added dramatic elements to the film. Townsend wrote himself a part as the group’s original songwriter and replacement fifth member, then cast a few veterans and members of his acting troupe amongst his newcomers.
Each of the Five Heartbeats is given a personality that carries throughout the picture. Duck (Townsend) is the group’s mediator, songwriter and leader. His brother JT (Leon) is the ladies man who can’t seem to commit. When JT tells him that he can’t stop sleeping with different women, Duck tells his brother he needs help. “They have Alcoholics Anonymous. You need Dick Control meetings.” The band’s David Ruffin lead singer clone, Eddie, could use the former self-help group. As embodied by Michael Wright (the crazed Omar White on Oz), Eddie is the film’s tragic figure. Rounding out the group are the high-note hitting Choir Boy (Tico Wells) and his counterpart at the other end of the scale, bass singer and group choreographer Dresser (Harry J. Lennix from Titus--someone cast him as Barack Obama stat!).
The film’s chaotic opening set piece is a premonition of things to come. It combines several musical numbers, a poker game gone wrong, a shooting, some verbal and physical comedy, a sex scene and a last minute entrance. Three of the Five Heartbeats are at a talent show, awaiting the arrival of Eddie and the original fifth Heartbeat, Bobby. Eddie and Bobby are playing a loaded poker game, and have to run when they’re exposed as cheaters. In the escape, Bobby is shot in the leg and never seen again in the movie, and Eddie comes sliding across the stage to take the lead at the last possible minute. Duck has JT take Bobby’s part, and he assumes JT’s part in their first musical number, “Nothing But Love For You.” The song’s Motown influence is evident in the lyrics.
Ain’t got no money.
Ain’t got no fancy car.
Don’t live the life of a millionaire
Or a movie star.
There’s nothing in this world that I possess
To equal your lovin’ and tenderness.
‘Cuz I got nothing but love for you baby
Got nothing but love for you baby.
The group loses to Flash and the Ebony Flames, a group headed by John Canada Terrell’s Michael “Flash” Turner. Flash is full of his nickname—he strips onstage, then rubs an audience member’s leg while singing “Shimmy shimmy yum yum, come on girl give me some!” The girl passes out as he sings “Are you ready for me?” I guess she wasn’t.
The Heartbeats’ loss doesn’t deter Jimmy Potter (Chuck Patterson) who wants to manage the group. Potter’s wife Eleanor (Diahann Carroll, looking stunning here) is skeptical. She points out that all the groups Potter has fallen for have all left him when they got famous. Potter has a good feeling about this group. After winning a few talent contests, including one sabotaged by a group led by Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle nemesis, Roy Fegan, Potter wants to press Nothing But Love For You onto vinyl. He finds a record company who wants to instead have the song recorded by his White artist, The Five Horsemen. This is an allusion to what actually happened to Black music more than a few times. The Five Horsemen are completely devoid of soul, just like Pat Boone. Unlike the horrific Tutti Frutti cover by Pat Boone, which went to number one on the charts while Little Richard’s version didn’t even chart, Jimmy refuses to have his record ruined by The Five Horsemen. Enter Big Red Davis.
Big Red is the proprietor of Big Red Records, which signs The Five Heartbeats, records Nothing, their signature song, and sends them on tour in the South. He is the film’s chief antagonist, a dangerous and corrupt record owner out to cheat any group he signs. But Hawthorne James plays the character so broadly that his every appearance sends the movie perilously close to self-parody. With his toothy smile and shock of conked red hair, Big Red looks like he stepped out of a comic book. His actions manage to be menacing, but James never is. When he hangs Roy Fegan out of a window over Fegan’s complaint about royalties (is this Townsend’s revenge for Fegan’s torment in Shuffle?), Fegan’s panicked reaction (and his split pants) sells the scene better than James’ menacing. James is as subtle as Madea, and just as important to his film’s storyline.
Now that the guys are going on tour, Potter hires a choreographer to give them some new moves. Dresser is offended, and challenges the new choreographer, a short older man named Sarge Johnson, whom Potter knew in the Army. Unfortunately for Dresser, Sarge is played by the late, great Harold Nicholas from the Nicholas Brothers, the greatest tap team to ever put on tap shoes. Nicholas sizes up Dresser’s moves and then, true to his former screen incarnation as Uptown Saturday Night’s Little Seymour, barks out “see, that wasn’t shit!” Nicholas then does a brief number which brought joy to my heart; anytime this man dances on screen I want to jump up and down. The gruff Sarge has only a few scenes in The Five Heartbeats, but Nicholas makes the most of his screen time. Whether asking for a verboten cigarette or threatening to whip two people’s asses at once, Sarge grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.
Townsend and Wayans give each character little mini-dramas to showcase the actor. Dresser frets over being able to afford his pregnant girlfriend. Eddie’s constant need to be loved and adored by fans leads him down the path of alcohol and drug abuse, leading to the departure of his girl-group singer significant other, Baby Doll (Troy Beyer, who unlike the Heartbeats, does her own singing) and his eventual replacement in the group by John Canada Terrell’s Flash. Eddie’s insubordination inadvertently leads to Big Red’s murdering of Jimmy Potter after the latter refuses to sell his share in the Heartbeats. Eleanor Potter loses her husband and both she and Dresser hold a grudge against Eddie. Duck and JT have a falling out over a woman. All of these subplots are well acted and, though they are predictable, manage to be compelling nonetheless. We’ve invested so much in the characters that the melodramas work.
Michael Wright has the most difficult part to play, and he brings grit and intensity to it. Had Eddie Murphy’s similarly plotted Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls been allowed the same rough edges as Wright’s Eddie, Murphy would have won his Oscar easily. Like Dreamgirls’ treatment of Effie White, Heartbeats skirts the narrative’s logical progression toward the death of its doomed character; here Eddie is rehabilitated through Narcotics Anonymous and the church, but not before a painful scene of Eddie hitting rock bottom. Wright is agonizing and sad as Eddie attempts to rejoin the group while strung out on drugs. Choir Boy offers him money, which Eddie refuses. Choir Boy later offers Eddie a chance to sing in his church choir, which he accepts. Townsend turns it into a rousing gospel musical number.
Speaking of the music, The Five Heartbeats is full of original material sung by session musicians such as Billy Valentine (who does lead on the Heartbeats’ signature tune) and The Dells, upon whose life story some of Heartbeats’ events are based. The songs are excellent and their presentation, with costume changes and full choreography, is a sight to behold. The best number, for a song called We Haven't Finished Yet, comes from Tressa Thomas, who plays Duck’s little sister. While Duck tosses balled up wads of paper with failed lyrics onto the floor, his sister picks them up and starts singing them. As she goes along, Duck tears up their room looking for other pieces of paper with lyrics on them to string together. Townsend and Thomas really sell the number; it works despite its cheesy nature and seemingly inappropriate staging (this isn’t THAT kind of musical). Patti Labelle sings the song over the end credits, and, sorry Patti, I liked the movie’s version better.
The Five Heartbeats is told as one big flashback, but the film goes in chronological order once it hops back in time. As each decade passes, we bear witness to some of the fates that befell real life artists. The Dells’ story about being stopped by racist cops in the South, and forced to sing to prove their identity, is recreated here, as is the robbery of soul artists’ royalties and pay by record label owners. Payola also appears here, as does the career-long battles between groups for fan appreciation and the refusal to put Black artists' pictures on their album covers. The film also tackles how inner group turmoil can cause its breakup despite seemingly lifelong bonds of friendship being forged early on. Townsend and Wayans sprinkle liberal doses of humor in the movie (watch the TV late in the film to see what happens to Flash’s solo career), but give these tragic items the dramatic weight they require.
Much of The Five Heartbeats’ criticism sounds similar to the reviews of Perry’s works: Too many jarring elements are put together in one film. I argue that, in Townsend’s case, his stitching holds the movie together. As writer, he lets us get to know the characters, and as director, he never loses his grip on the material’s sometimes bizarre mixing of elements. There’s a great movie inside of Tyler Perry, and it’s coming sooner rather than later (mark my words). And when it comes, it’s going to look like The Five Heartbeats.
And that, dear readers, marks the end of this year’s Black History Mumf series! Thanks to everyone who posted out here with comments, and to everyone who took the time to read my ramblings. Stay tooned for a few BHM extras unveiling in the next few weeks. I promised 29 pieces and you’ll get them, officially or not.