I want to say a few things before I start on my love for this film. First, Robert Townsend is a national treasure. He birthed gems like Meteor Man and Hollywood Shuffle (yes, I said GEMS. Fight me!). He is one of my favorite directors and if I ever met him, I would probably fall out. Second, if you haven’t seen this movie, I am and have judged you. I have the DVD. I will let you borrow it if you have not seen it or better yet, I will have a watch party at my house. It is a film that EVERYONE should have the experience of watching.
I just finished watching Making the Five Heartbeats, which is the documentary that Townsend had been working on for years. Finally, he released it in select theaters a few years ago and it is now available for purchase on DVD/Blu-ray and to rent or own on Vimeo. To know what went into making this film, makes me appreciate it even more.
Released in March of ’91, The Five Heartbeats didn’t actually do as well in theaters. Sure, now it’s a cult classic but when it was released, it opened to empty theaters due to a lackluster trailer and a theater shooting coupled with the release of New Jack City (just can never have nice things). Anyway, despite all the trouble Townsend went through to make this film see the light of day, it now stands as a shining example of black love, black people and the strength of friendship.
Black love is tricky in this film. In watching the documentary, actor Hawthorne James, who plays Big Red whose office hours are from nine to five, said something that caught my ear. This film was the first time we saw black love displayed between men. It showed the vulnerability that we don’t see often in films between black men. The first example in the film that I thought of was when Dresser (Harry J. Lennix) told his bandmates that his wife was pregnant but he didn’t have money to support his family. He was ashamed and didn’t know what to do. His friends did. They rallied around him and Dresser cried. I remember watching that scene and thinking how I had never seen a man admit to being in a bind and crying and if it was foreign to me, think of all the other people who were introduced to this vulnerability. Then, this was also one of the first movies, and probably the only, where all the men kept their respective wives. Now there was an issue between JT and Duck but…for the most part, the women stayed.
This movie had FIVE BLACK MEN IN LEAD ROLES. I also want to stop and say that Denzel Washington would have been a horrible Eddie King. I mean horrible. We know the man has range and a few Oscars but he would have never measured up to the performance that we got from Michael Wright. Wright was tough to work with at times, according to the documentary, but he was worth the trouble. He was so good, in fact, that he made us believe the character’s name was Eddie “Kang” instead of “King”. Didn’t figure that out until a few years ago. Also, David Alan Grier would have been an AWFUL Choir Boy. The switch up Tico Wells gave us as Choir Boy when he got a little change in his pocket was like, “Well, sir, where have you been?” Also, Townsend was right when he told Leon that women would come see his movies just because he was fine. The point has been proven several times. Also, I would’ve loved to see Niecy Nash, who auditioned for this movie along with a slew of other people I’ll mention later, as one of JT’s women. Her ad libs would have been legendary. Also, Whitney Houston as Babydoll? Some of these decisions from Townsend made me question my idol. I don’t want to ever do that again. Back to the point I was making. It gave us the insight, before The Temptations (another movie I love because of Leon), of how life was like for these up and coming, at the time, acts like The Dells, who played a crucial role in making the film, and the Temptations. The “crossover” talk, the profiling and the struggle to make the music we wanted to make as black people kind of sounds like the struggle Townsend went through to make this film. Did you know some stupid executive told Townsend to cut the scene with him and his sister AND THE CHURCH SCENE WITH EDDIE AND BABYDOLL SINGING? Dishonor on that man’s cow, man. (This is my mom’s favorite scene in the movie.)
I am the type of person who thrives off of my friends. They are my family and always will be. They are my lifeline, my heartbeat (no pun intended but it works). Friendships get turned upside down at times and even blood relationships get turned about (JT and Duck for example) but in the end, they always…well in most cases, come full circle. Let’s go back to that stupid executive again. The man said to cut the last scene and make it a voiceover. I need to know this man’s name because he should no longer have a job at this point. That scene was so pivotal and necessary. The part of that scene that gives me chills is when they boys get back together to sing and dance for the cookout and Duck turns to Eddie and Eddie says, “Y’all sure you wanna hang with old Eddie Kang.” Ahhhh!! So good! Denzel who?! How them attempting to dance at like age 50, or whatever age they were supposed to be, was HILARIOUS! Some people forgot the steps. People’s threw out they backs. Knees were creaking. Exactly what we needed to end this movie. This may twist and turn but there is always that cookout where you get together to show them kids how a real group works. (I still don’t know why Flash thought rap was where the Lord was taking him. I just don’t.)
Again, if you have not seen this film or if you have and you can’t recite the entire movie, then you have been judged. Personally, my favorite scenes are the first group performance at the talent show. The way Eddie slid onto that stage and belted out that first line? Took. Me. Out!
The next scene is when they go to the Apollo and Bird told his girls to boo the Five Heartbeats. Duck couldn’t play the piano because they had to use the piano man that was there. They had to do these lame steps. It was a mess. But then Duck said, “This is my music” and rushed that piano dude and did the piano riff and Eddie grabs that mic and sings in that girl’s face? HUNNIE! When I say I rewinded that scene over and over again and clapped every time! Fun fact, Kasi Lemmons, the brilliant director of Eye’s Bayou, is the girl that is sitting in the front row orchestrating the booing. Gems I learned in the doc.
And the last scene…LAWD! JT, played by Leon, is fione!! Then Flash came in and was taking JT’s ladies. He ain’t like that ONE BIT! So brother decided to do something about it. It was so intense that the man who came with the girl was like, “I’m leaving this girl to go home with one of them because I bought these damn tickets and she’s embarrassing me.” Watch!
He tossed that mic back to Flash like when Pound landed on Bugs Bunny and asked Lola Bunny, “Is this yo man?”. To my future husband, this is what I want and this is what you should want for me Clyde (Kingdom Come reference. I love that crazy movie, too).
Man, this is one of those movies that when you turn to a channel, most likely Fuse, VH1 or BET, you just stay and watch the entire film like you don’t know what’s about to happen. I might watch it tomorrow in its entirety. Thank you, Robert Townsend!