'Making the Five Heartbeats': Film Review

Courtesy of Green Lighthouse
Strictly for obsessive fans.
11/30/2018

Robert Townsend's behind-the-scenes documentary chronicles the making of his 1991 cult favorite film 'The Five Heartbeats.'

It's understandable that Robert Townsend would want to take a victory lap for one of his most notable films. But even die-hard fans of 1991's The Five Heartbeats might find his very belated making-of documentary engrossing for the entirety of its feature length. Although presenting a vivid portrait of the difficulties endured by indie filmmakers working for the first time in the studio system, Making the Five Heartbeats would have been more effective at half the length and as a DVD extra.

Townsend, who became prominent with his acclaimed indie debut Hollywood Shuffle, narrates the doc, explaining that he had a desire to make a film about his favorite musical group the Temptations. He enlisted Keenan Ivory Wayans to partner with him on the project, with the two securing a meeting with the group's lead singer David Ruffin, who by then had fallen victim to drug abuse.

The filmmakers had a tentative commitment from then rising star Denzel Washington to play the lead role, but Warner Bros., who had initially expressed interest, passed on the script. "It was my first real Hollywood lesson," says Townsend ruefully, adding that the project then went into "development hell" for years. At that point, Wayans departed to develop his hit television sketch-comedy show, In Living Color.

The film eventually went into production, although by then Washington was too busy to take part in it. Whitney Houston expressed interest, but her managers nixed the idea, saying her role wasn't significant enough. Much to Townsend's dismay, the studio, afraid of potential legal issues with Motown, rejected the idea of Temptations singers Eddie Kendricks and Ruffin serving as technical advisors. Instead, the veteran R&B group The Dells signed on. One of the documentary's more fascinating segments features footage from the open casting calls, showcasing such future stars as Don Cheadle, R. Kelly and Niecy Nash.

Townsend explains that the movie was shot in reverse order because of the hairstyle demands of the characters as they went through various time frames. Robert Altman dropped by the set and asked if actor Michael Wright, with whom he had a difficult experience with the film Streamers, was behaving himself. Several of the pic's stars offer incisive commentary, including Leon, Tico Wells and Wright.

The doc includes many fascinating tidbits, such as Townsend describing his meeting with the legendary Harold Nicholas to see if he would be right for a part in the movie. The filmmaker was disappointed to discover that the tap dancing great had "no edge," at least until his snarled response to Townsend's joking suggestion that he play Nicholas in a biopic.

We also learn that the studio was highly resistant to a sequence dear to Townsend's heart in which his character sings with his little sister. They finally agreed to let him shoot it, as long as it would be completed within four hours. It later became one of the most popular scenes in the film. (Quoting various studio execs, Townsend adopts an exaggeratedly white voice that comes across as too cartoonish.)

The completed film tested well and hopes were high. But the box office was very disappointing and the pic was pulled from theaters shortly after it opened. Townsend blames several factors for the movie's failure, including an ineffective marketing campaign (the trailer comes in for particularly harsh criticism) and the violence in theaters that had recently plagued the release of New Jack City and was scaring audiences away from black films. But the feature got a second life on home video, achieving the sort of cult status that presumably made this project viable.

The hagiographic documentary shies away from presenting its subject in any negative light, such as the fact that the film's reviews were mostly terrible. As a result, it too often comes across as a vanity project, and an overextended one at that. But lovers of The Five Heartbeats and anyone interested in the gritty process of getting movies made is bound to at least find some aspects interesting.

Production company: Green Lighthouse
Director-screenwriter: Robert Townsend
Producers: James L. Herron III, Robert Townsend, Lydia Nicole
Directors of photography: Dianne Farrington, Louis Obioha, Suzanne Suter
Editors: Loi Ameera Almeron, Bethany L. Fanthorpe, Robert Pergament
Composer: Stephen James Taylor

85 minutes