Director Robert Townsend's low-budget "Hollywood Shuffle" gained the long-time actor notice in 1987, as the film was a very funny directorial debut that went a fairly long way with a fairly low budget. After Eddie Murphy's "Raw", Townsend returned to the director's chair in 1991, with "The Five Heartbeats", a very good fictional account of a singing group in the 60's that rises out of obscurity, only to find success and the usual problems that accompany a fast rise to stardom.
The film stars Townsend as Duck, the leader of a band who rises out of obsurity in the 60's, trying to get through talent shows and get past record excutives on their way to success. The early scenes of the film are some of the best in the film; while Townsend is not always a terrific storyteller, he stages scenes with an energy that's hard not to get caught up in. Townsend also handles the dramatic aspects of the film well, too. While most have likely seen all of the plot points of this kind of film done before in other showbiz pictures (badly done most recently with Mariah Carey's "Glitter"), Townsend has chosen to make a film that's not about the aspects of fame that these characters encounter as much as it is about who these people are. Townsend and co-writer Keenan Ivory-Wayans have created characters that seem realistic and don't simply change their personality to follow plot devices.
The performances are also quite good. Townsend himself is an engaging blend of comedy and drama, able to create a sympathetic character and gain a well-played laugh. Supporting performances from Leon, Michael Wright and others are also solid. One of the few complaints I have about the picture is that it does tend to drag on a bit; 122 minutes starts to feel as if it's a bit too much time to tell this story. Technically, the film is enjoyable, as it seems to have done as much as it can to create the period on what was likely a small budget.
VIDEO: "The Five Heartbeats" is presented by Fox in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality doesn't look any better than okay. Sharpness and detail are lackluster, as the picture seems murky in the darker sequences and lacking depth overall. The print occasionally shows some dirt and the occasional specks, but edge enhancement is the main problem that causes irritation. Colors are well-saturated, but don't suffer from smearing or any other flaws. This is a respectable presentation, but appears a little rough around the edges and could have used a little work.
SOUND: The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 4.0 (center, right, left, mono surround). The film's audio experience is not exactly what one might expect from a film that relies so heavily on music. The front speakers deliver the majority of the information and do a respectable job at it. It's easily apparent that these people are not singing, but that didn't bother me a great deal. The surrounds should have picked up a fair amount of information in the club sequences, whether it be the crowds cheering or music, but they really don't and essentially remain silent throughout the proceedings. Audio quality seemed pleasing enough, as the music remained crisp, if not that full, while dialogue came through clearly.
MENUS: Basic menus with film-themed images as backgrounds. A bit of music in the backgrounds would have been nice.
EXTRAS: The original "making of" featurette, which is pretty enjoyable and informative, considering most of these early featurettes are very basic. It offers a fair deal of insight into the creative process and doesn't simply restate what happens in the movie. There's also a short Townsend featurette along with the trailer and three TV spots for the film. Additional trailers are included for the Fox titles "Carmen Jones", "The Rose" and "All That Jazz".
Final Thoughts: "The Five Heartbeats" is a very good film, with fine performances and an interesting telling of a story that's been done before. Fox's DVD is a bit of a let-down, as the picture and sound quality are less-than-pleasing, but that could have also been due to the film's low budget. Supplements are minimal, but the price is right and fans of the film still may want to take a look.