Twenty years ago this week (March 29), ‘The Five Heartbeats’ was released in theaters.
Directed by Robert Townsend with a script written by Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans, the film starred Townsend, Michael Wright, Harry J. Lennix, Leon, Tico Wells, Diahann Carroll, John Canada Terrell, Harold Nicholas, Hawthorne James, Chuck Patterson, Troy Beyer, Roy Fegan, Carla Brothers, Paul Benjamin, Theresa Randle and Tressa Thomas.
Set in the 60’s, when so many musical groups were thriving, the story centers around a quintet of hopeful young African American men form an amateur vocal group called The Five Heartbeats. After an initially rocky start, the group improves, turns pro, and rises to become a top flight music sensation. Along the way however, the guys learn many hard lessons about the reality of the music industry, with its casual racism and greed, while the personal weaknesses of the members threaten to destroy the integrity of the band.
Playing in just 862 theaters across the country, and after receiving mixed reviews from critics, the film didn’t do well at the box office. It grossed $8.5 million dollars, but through VHS sales and bootleg copies, it found a new fan base that has continued to grow over the years.
The soundtrack, with hit songs including ‘Nights Like This,’ ‘Nothing but Love’ and ‘A Heart Is a House for Love,’ was also a contributor to the film’s popularity.
BlackVoices.com spoke with director/actor Robert Townsend and cast members Michael Wright and Leon, who played Eddie Kane, Jr. and J.T in the film, respectively.
Townsend, who had scored a hit four years earlier with his directorial debut ‘Hollywood Shuffle,’ wanted his next film to be about the music industry.
“I grew up with a lot of the singing groups from the ’60s, such as The Temptations, The Dells and The O’Jays. I always loved music. When The Temptations broke up, I took it personally. [The Five Heartbeats] came out of that,” says Townsend.
Unlike for his previous film, the Chicago native didn’t stage auditions. He went after actors he knew would fit the parts.
“I just met with a lot of actors and talked to them. No one read a script,” Townsend recalls. “Harry Lennix, who played Dresser, he was in Chicago doing theater. Leon had just finished doing the Madonna video ‘Like a Prayer.’ Michael Wright who played Eddie King was the only actor I knew I wanted ’cause he was in a movie called ‘Streamers’ and I just loved him as an actor. Tico, who plays Choirboy, he came to a big cattle call in New York City and I did improv with him for about fifteen minutes, then said, ‘He’s gonna be Choirboy!’ It was such a different process.”
Michael Wright, who had already starred in another cult favorite, the 1979 film, ‘Wanderers,’ and had appeared in the 1983 NBC sci-fi miniseries ‘V,’ had no singing skills when he took on the role of the drug addict-reformed leader of the group.
“It’s extraordinary, because I had absolutely no qualifications whatsoever to be part of anybody’s singing group. All I was was an actor,” says Wright. “To this day people ask me, ‘Do you sing like that?’ I say, ‘No I act like I sing like that.’ When we all came together, even though I was playing the lead singer in the film, I was probably the least musical of all those guys. Because of my craft, I just came up to speed and learned how to become the lead singer of a rock n’ roll group, and now I’m not just a movie star I’m a rock star!”
While the New York native has continued to work on and off the screen in films and plays, he’s thankful that this film is among those that he will be best remembered for.
“This film in particular I could describe as my magnum opus, if you will. Actors are very fortunate if they can have one or two films they’re remembered for. I never expected it, but Townsend and I were always creeping around this word ‘classic.’ It has become, arguably, a favorite film of African Americans in the way that when I was a kid, I used to watch ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ There are people that tell me they’ve watched it 50 times, or every day. That’s incredible.”
Leon, who prior to the Madonna video, had numerous film credits under his belt when he took on the role as J.T, Duck’s pretty boy brother in the group. The New York native had starred with Tom Cruise in ‘All the Right Moves,’ Matt Dillon in ‘The Flamingo Kid,’ and co-starred with Oprah Winfrey, Lynn Whitfield, and Robin Givens in ‘The Women of Brewster’s Place.’ The on-screen chemistry he shared with Townsend felt genuine, although the two only first met for the film.
“I didn’t know Robert before then. He saw me at the MTV awards with Madonna, and told me he saw me in the her video ‘Like a Virgin.’ I think Kenan Ivory Wayans was supposed to play the role in the film but he got ‘In Living Color,’ and he couldn’t do it. Before that happened, Robert wanted me to do the film.”
His friendship with Townsend has last over 20 years as they continue to work together on other projects.
“We’re on the web series ‘Diary of a Single Mom.’ I’m on the show with Monica Calhoun, Valery Ortiz, and Richard Roundtree. It’s really doing well on the internet. The third season just finished.”
Reflecting on the film’s anniversary, none of the cast could believe the film’s popularity has lasted this long.
“Somebody sent me a link the other day with one of these historical black colleges were playing ‘A Heart Is A House’ at their homecoming, and they played it with the whole band, it was wow!” says Townsend. “It freaked me out, they all sang it together. I had never seen anything like that with one of my films. It made me realize ‘The Five Heartbeats’ is part of the American fabric.”