The Five Heartbeats

Four years after his hilarious satire Hollywood Shuffle, writer-director-actor Robert Townsend gave us this impossibly ambitious 1991 movie following a fictional African-American R & B singing group (Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix, and Tico Wells) from 1965 to the 90s, scripted with Keenen Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). The result is a long and unevenly realized chronicle of friendship, teeming with subplots, packed with energy, and unusually candid about the harshness of the music business. The women in the cast (Troy Beyer, Theresa Randle, Tressa Thomas, Deborah Lacey, and the commanding Diahann Carroll) unfortunately aren’t given much to do, but there are striking performances by John Canada Terrell as a singer who replaces one of the original Heartbeats, Chuck Patterson as the group’s manager, Harold Nicholas (one of the celebrated Nicholas Brothers) as their choreographer, and Hawthorne James as the villainous record executive Big Red. (JR)

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