The Five Heartbeats
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Townsend[1]
Written byRobert Townsend
Keenen Ivory Wayans[2]
Produced byLoretha C. Jones[3]
CinematographyBill Dill
Edited byJohn Carter
Music byStanley Clarke
Distributed by20th Century Fox[4]
Release date
  • March 29, 1991 (1991-03-29) (U.S.)[5]
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$9-10 million[6]
Box office$8,750,400[citation needed]

The Five Heartbeats is a 1991 musical drama film directed by Robert Townsend, who co-wrote the script with Keenen Ivory Wayans. Produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox, the film's main cast includes Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon Robinson, Harry J. Lennix, Tico Wells, Harold Nicholas, and Diahann Carroll.[1] The plot of the film (which is loosely based on the lives of several artists: The Dells, The Temptations, Four Tops, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke and others)[7] follows the three decade career of the rhythm and blues vocal group The Five Heartbeats. The film depicts the rise and fall of a Motown inspired soul act through the eyes of one of the Heartbeats, Donald "Duck" Matthews.

The film was released to most North American audiences on March 29, 1991;[8] however, it was not made available to audiences in other continents until 2002 when a DVD was released. Another DVD was released in 2006 for the film's 15th anniversary.[9] The movie received mixed reviews from critics.[10]


Five boys - Donald "Duck" Matthews, Anthony "Choirboy" Stone, J.T. Matthews, Terrence "Dresser" Williams, and Eddie King, Jr. - perform at a Battle of the Bands contest as The Heartbeats. The group loses to Flash and the Ebony Sparks, but pleases the crowd and is noticed by Jimmy Potter. Jimmy offers to manage the group, promising them $100 if they do not win the next month's Battle of the Bands contest. After they lose again, Jimmy pays them. When the owner of the club asks to hire them, they agree to let Jimmy manage them.

Bird and The Midnight Falcons, witnessing the Heartbeats rehearsing for a competition, become concerned they could lose; Bird asks his girlfriend to invite her friends and boo The Heartbeats while cheering The Falcons. The announcer, a cousin of one of the Falcons, forces The Heartbeats to use the house piano player. Duck grows frustrated with the bad playing and takes over the piano stool. Eddie leads the group in a number that results in Bird's girlfriend fainting in his arms. The Heartbeats win the contest and the interest of Big Red Davis, who owns Big Red Records. Big Red offers them a deal, but Jimmy and his wife Eleanor Potter, aware of Big Red's corruption, decline. The group instead releases their first single on Jimmy's own independent label and searches for a record company they can trust, but no one else is interested aside from a label that wants to buy Duck's songs for a group they've already signed, The Five Horsemen. As a result, the Heartbeats are forced to sign with Big Red.

The group goes on the road for a music tour. However, the travel is marred by racism and poor living conditions. Dresser's girlfriend visits and reveals she is pregnant. The group's first album cover features white people, despite the label having earlier approved a photo of the Heartbeats as the cover.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1960s, The Five Heartbeats receive numerous awards, chart several hits, and are featured on magazine covers. However, Eddie abuses alcohol and cocaine, affecting his performance and prompting his girlfriend, Baby Doll, to break up with him. Convinced that Jimmy intends to replace him due to his deteriorating condition, he cuts a deal with Big Red to have Jimmy cut out of his contract. Jimmy threatens to go to authorities with information about bootlegged LPs, cooked books, and payola that could have Big Red arrested, leading the latter to have him killed. Following Jimmy's funeral, the group learns that Eddie's deceit caused the fallout between Jimmy and Big Red. Big Red is ultimately convicted of Jimmy's murder, forcing the group to sign with a new record label. Guilt-ridden over his indirect role in Jimmy's death, Eddie leaves the Heartbeats in disgrace and falls further into substance abuse and poverty as his friends can only watch on.

The Heartbeats add Flash as their lead singer in Eddie's place. Duck comes to suspect his fiancé, Tanya Sawyer, is having an affair with Choirboy. He follows her to a hotel but discovers that Tanya is meeting with J.T., not Choirboy. Tanya's relationship with J.T. predates her relationship with Duck, but she says she is now in love with Duck. J.T. urges Tanya to disclose the affair, but she refuses. At an awards ceremony celebrating their success, Flash announces he is going solo. Duck reveals that he knows about the affair between Tanya and J.T. and also leaves the group, resulting in the Heartbeats' disbandment.

The film skips ahead to the early 1990s. Choirboy has returned to singing in his father's church. Eddie has become clean and sober after converting to Christianity: he is now married to Baby Doll, sings in Choirboy's choir, and manages his own group. He asks Duck to write songs for them, who agrees. J.T. is now married to a wife and two children, including a son named "Duck"; the brothers finally reconcile. The only one to have maintained a singing career is Flash, who transitioned from doo-wop to pop music, and is part of the group Flash and The Five Horsemen.

At a family gathering, The former Five Heartbeats reunite in front of their families and friends and try to remember and show their old moves. At first, Eddie declines, but Eleanor, coming to terms with her husband's death, forgives him.



After writing (along with Keenen Ivory Wayans), producing, directing, and starring in his first film Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend had attained near-cult status among independent filmmakers due to his dedication to that film—a project which caused him to max out all his credit cards and spend nearly $100,000 of his own money raised through savings and various acting jobs in order to produce the film. When writing Townsend's first studio film The Five Heartbeats, Townsend and Wayans kept comedy an important aspect of the film, but also explored complex characters in a more dramatic way.[11]

The Five Heartbeats was originally set up as a development deal at Warner Bros. in 1988, with Keenan Ivory Wayans, his brother Damon, and others tapped to star.[12] Warner passed on the project, and the Wayans moved on to develop and star in the Fox sketch comedy show In Living Color instead.[12]

Townsend resurrected Heartbeats at 20th Century Fox in 1990.[12] Years before, Townsend had had a small role as a member of the fictional Motown-style group "The Sorels" in the 1984 film Streets of Fire. His original screenplay was inspired by the lives and careers of Motown group The Temptations, and Townsend had met with former lead singers David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick with the intention of hiring them as technical advisors.[12] Fox vetoed bringing Ruffin and Kendrick onto the production, for fear that Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. might sue the studio.[12] Rhythm and blues-singing group The Dells, who were renowned for their four-decade career, became the technical advisors instead.

Townsend used his film to depict a similar story to the careers of the Temptations and the Dells, following the lives of three friends who aspire to musical stardom.[10] Given the setting of the film, he was able to tie in other elements, such as race relations, as well.[10][better source needed]

Due to the production's budgetary constraints, Townsend used little-known actors of the time, with the exceptions of Leon Robinson, Diahann Carroll and Harold Nicholas of The Nicholas Brothers.[1] Townsend had considered Denzel Washington as Eddie King, Jr. and Whitney Houston as Baby Doll.[12] The former was not cast due to budget concerns and the latter passed on the role as it was felt to be too small.[12]


To promote the film prior to its release, Townsend, along with the other actors who portrayed the fictional musical quartet The Five Heartbeats (Leon Robinson, Michael Wright, Harry J. Lennix, and Tico Wells) performed in a concert with real-life Soul/R&B vocal group The Dells, one of many groups that inspired the film. The Dells sang and recorded the vocals as the actors lip synced.[13]


The Five Heartbeats
(Music from the Motion Picture)
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
ReleasedApril 2, 1991
GenreR&B, soul
Professional ratings
Review scores

A soundtrack for the film was released by Virgin Records, featuring original music by various artists. Both "Nights Like This" and "A Heart Is a House for Love" became top 20 hits on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart.[15] Many of the tracks are credited to fictional characters in the film as opposed to the actual vocalists. After 7's "Nights Like This" won the film an ASCAP Award.[16]

  1. "A Heart Is a House for Love" - Billy Valentine/ The Dells
  2. "We Haven't Finished Yet" - Patti LaBelle, Tressa Thomas, Billy Valentine
  3. "Nights Like This" - After 7
  4. "Bring Back the Days" - U.S. Male
  5. "Baby Stop Running Around" - Bird & The Midnight Falcons
  6. "In the Middle" - Dee Harvey
  7. "Nothing but Love" - The Dells with Billy Valentine
  8. "Are You Ready for Me" - Dee Harvey
  9. "Stay in My Corner" - The Dells
  10. "I Feel Like Going On" - Andraé Crouch[14][15] (Eddie, Baby Doll and the L.A. Mass Choir)


Region Certification Certified units/sales
United States (RIAA)[17] Gold 500,000^

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.


The film grossed approximately $8.5 million after being released in 862 theaters throughout North America.[18] The film was not well received by a majority of critics.[10] On Rotten Tomatoes The Five Heartbeats has an approval rating of 39%, based on reviews from 18 critics.[10]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times commented that: feature length, Townsend shows a real talent, and, not surprisingly, an ability to avoid most cliches, to go for the human truth in his the end we really care about these guys...There is one obligatory scene showing racial prejudice against the group, and it seems a little tacked on, as if the only purpose of the Southern trip was to justify the scene.[19]

Due to the nature of the film, music montages were often used to progress the plot; critics considered this a major flaw.[20]

The numerous musical performances in the film were highly acclaimed.[20] All Music complimented the Dells' lead singer Marvin Junior (who provided the singing voice for fictional character Eddie King Jr.) stating that he was "one of the most underrated voices in pop music."[14] Tressa Thomas' performance of "We Haven't Finished Yet," in particular, was given favorable attention by critics.[21][22]

The film received an ASCAP award for Most Performed Songs in a Motion Picture for the song "Nights Like This."[23]

Home media

A DVD was released for the film in 2002, a special edition was also released in 2007 for the film's 15th Anniversary which includes additional content.[9]


  1. ^ a b c d " : Movies : Movie : The Five Heartbeats : Cast & Crew". Archived from the original on 26 May 2005. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  2. ^ " : Movies : Movie : The Five Heartbeats : Plot". Archived from the original on 30 April 2005. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  3. ^ " : Movies : Movie : The Five Heartbeats : Details". Archived from the original on 30 April 2005. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  4. ^ a b c "The Five Heartbeats". IMDb. 29 March 1991.
  5. ^ [permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "AFI|Catalog".
  7. ^ Erickson, Hal. "The Five Heartbeats: Overview". MSN. Microsoft. Archived from the original on 2014-07-30. Retrieved 2019-02-15. Loosely based on the life and times of several R&B; artists (The Dells, The Temptations, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke and others) The Five Heartbeats traces the rise and fall of a popular African-American 1960s singing aggregation.
  8. ^ [permanent dead link]
  9. ^ a b c "Answers - the Most Trusted Place for Answering Life's Questions".
  10. ^ a b c d e "The Five Heartbeats". Rotten Tomatoes.
  11. ^ Donalson, Melvin (December 2003). Black Directors in Hollywood. ISBN 9780292701793.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Townsend, Robert (Director) (August 27, 2018). Making The Five Heartbeats (Motion picture). Hollywood: Green Lighthouse.
  13. ^ "HEARTBEATS OF AMERICA | The Five Heartbeats | Pop Culture News | News + Notes | Entertainment Weekly". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on 2007-04-01.
  14. ^ a b c "The Five Heartbeats - The Five Heartbeats | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 27 February 2022.
  15. ^ a b c "Artist".
  16. ^ Jet Vol. 109, No. 4 'The Five Heartbeats' Celebrates 15th Anniversary With Special DVD. "Also written by Keenen Ivory Wayans, the film won an ASCAP Award for the song, Nights Like This. "
  17. ^ "American album certifications – Soundtrack – The Five Heartbeats". Recording Industry Association of America. Retrieved June 28, 2022.
  18. ^ "The Five Heartbeats". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 27 February 2022.
  19. ^ ":: :: Reviews". Archived from the original on 12 April 2005. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  20. ^ a b "DVD Talk". Retrieved 27 February 2022.
  21. ^ "The Five Heartbeats (R)". The Washington Post. 1991.
  22. ^ "The Five Heartbeats | Movie Review | Entertainment Weekly". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on 2008-05-14.
  23. ^ "The Five Heartbeats - IMDb". IMDb.