Imagine the soapiest, sappiest, corniest "Motown Band Biopic" confection you can think of, pack it with unconvincingly lip-synched and tonally inert musical sequences, characters afforded precisely one character trait apiece, dialogue that borders on the insipid, and a directorial style that looks, sounds, and feels like a toothpaste commercial. That's Robert Townsend's The Five Heartbeats -- only subtract the "biopic" part, because the Heartbeats never existed -- nowhere outside of Townsend's overwhelmingly simpering screenplay, that is.
The plot's precisely what you expect, point by isolated point: It's 1965 and the Heartbeats are a bunch of inner-city nobodies. Poverty, parents, and juvenile delinqency may conspire to keep the five pals downtrodden, but it's their collective talents and dreams of stardom that lift them out of the mean streets. Then they get famous and cocky, do a whole bunch of things they shouldn't, and eventually a few predictably tragic things happen, which (oh so gradually) explains the pointless framing story that sees star/writer/director Robert Townsend with gray streaks, sitting in a rocking chair, and gazing out at the ocean wistfully and dreaming of hazy nostalgia.
Yeah, it's that kind of movie. A scene in which the Heartbeats' first song is performed by an all-white group feels like it was pulled directly from a very lame episode of Saturday Night Live; keep in mind while you watch this scene that The Five Heartbeats is NOT trying to be a comedy, and that's when you'll start to notice the slipshod tonal shifts that Townsend employs while desperately aiming to pad his screenplay with every cliché under the sun. The Five Heartbeats goes from light dramatics to limp comedy schtick to maudlin emotional exhibition to simplistic social issue pandering with no sense of consistency, style, or sense.
And the actors certainly don't help matters. Aside from Townsend's own perpetually cartoonish performance, there's Michael Wright's hilariously overwrought overacting, the virtually complete inpetitude of Leon Robinson's eye-rollings and line-readings, and Harry J. Lennix ... actually, Harry manages to smoke these guys out of every single scene. Even with a distressingly one-note character to work on, Lennix displays a steel-eyed intensity that makes the rest of the Heartbeat boys look like a bunch of community theater rejects.
We never really get to see the defining moments of the band's success story, which is both odd and stupid. Material detailing their immediate reaction to hitting the big-time is delivered in music-montage method, yet huge chunks of running time are dedicated to side characters, subplots, and aimless tangents that add nothing to the Heartbeats main story. (One of the original band members gets replaced, and this information is imparted to the audience by way of a magazine cover.)
The charitable might be tempted to describe The Five Heartbeats as wholesome and well-intentioned -- but so is a 6-year-old who just crayon-scrawled "I love cookies" on the living room wall. Take the director's Hollywood Shuffle out of the equation (which is a frankly funny and fairly brave little satire) and Robert Townsend is the directorial equivalent of that crayon-toting six-year-old. And The Five Heartbeats is his self-adored masterpiece.
Video: Anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, which is just shiny and polished enough to make the unconvincing period design look all sorts of Crayolafake.
Audio: Dolby Digital 4.0, which delivers loud musical moments and whisper-like dialogue exchanges. I used my volume buttons a lot with this DVD. Dolby 2.0 tracks are available in French and Spanish. Optional subtitles come in English and Spanish.
Four featurettes grace the special features menu: Meet the Five Heartbeats (9:40) is an introduction to virtually every character in the movie; In the Studio (4:54) is a visit with the studio singers who provide the Heartbeats' vocals; The Look (5:08) focuses on the costumes and the hairstyles; The Director's Process (10:59) is a whole bunch of airy blather from Robert Townsend, who (not surprisingly) comes pretty close to breaking his own arm with the back-patting.
The Nomination is less than 2 minutes of on-set, in-costume b-roll jibber-jabber.
Under the "Original Publicity Campaign" banner you'll find The Five Heartbeats Original Featurette (4:32), a Robert Townsend Profile (2:24), a trio of TV spots, and the original thatrical trailer.
Material normally known as "deleted scenes" is presented under a Bonus Footage heading. What's interesting about these four scenes is that you can watch them individually -- or wedged back into the movie through the magic of semi-seamless branching. What's weird is that these scenes (tallying about 5.5 minutes) consist of raw (and fairly unaudible) footage, which makes one wonder why anyone would want to see them jammed back into the movie.
For years I'd heard that The Five Heartbeats was a scrappy, sincere, and heartfelt little musical drama. Remind me to track down everyone who said that and ask them what the hell they were thinking, because this is one of the lamest, limpest, and most aggressively maudlin cliché-salads I've seen in years.