Three years and 25 drafts later, the “Parent ‘Hood” star’s wish fully came to pass in the form of “The Five Heartbeats,” a musical drama he directed that was loosely based on the lives of several recording artists, including The Dells and The Temptations and depicts the rise and fall of a Motown-inspired group.
Co-written and starring Townsend as Donald “Duck” Matthews, “The Five Heartbeats’ arrived in theaters 25 years ago on March 29, 1991 and also starred Michael Wright as Eddie King Jr., Leon Robinson (J.T. Matthews), Harry Lennix (Terrence “Dresser” Williams) and Tico Wells (Anthony “Choir Boy” Stone) as well as Hawthorne James (corrupt record label owner Big Red Davis), Roy Fegan (Bird, lead singer of rival group Bird and the Midnight Falcons), Diahann Carroll (Eleanor Potter, wife of the Heartbeats’ manager Jimmy Potter) and Troy Beyer (Eddie’s girlfriend Baby Doll).
“The cast had always said that I’m trying to make a classic. I want to make a classic,” Townsend told EURweb’s Chris Richburg about his intent to create an unforgettable piece of cinema. “I just knew that I had put my whole heart and being into it. I have real high standards, you know, always trying to raise the bar. I was really proud of how the film came together because I really learned the value of having a great team.”
“When you have a really great team, everybody raises the bar,” he said. “So what I’m really thankful for is that from Bill Dill as my cinematographer, raising the bar. [Academy Award-nominated costume designer] Ruth Carter, Loretha Jones as a producer. Every department was on the top line and it just made my life easy.”
With “Hollywood Shuffle” providing a springboard, Townsend noticed a big shift in the attention given to “The Five Heartbeats, with “going from a budget of $100,000 to almost $9 million.” Equipped with added finances and his internal passion, the filmmaker made sure to not waste precious time and utilized every resource and opportunity available to make his sophomore feature a greater success than his first outing behind the camera.
“It was a big jump and I went in really prepared. I did storyboards. I did shot lists and I created my own language. I created what I call the Townsend Bible,” Townsend shared when touching on his responsibility as director off camera as well as his full commitment as an actor in front of the camera with learning the synchronized moves of the Heartbeats. “Having done my very first movie with no money, you gotta understand that you can never bump heads and make any mistakes once you get on the set. So I created this very unique Townsend Bible and everybody knew what everyday was gonna be, from the first minute you stepped on set until you left and went home. And then I had rehearsal. So everything I did, I was trying to not waste money but try to make a movie that people would want to see again and again.”
Although “The Five Heartbeats” moves forward in time to chronicle the fictional singing group’s journey, Townsend’s filming went in the opposite direction with shooting the entire movie in reverse order. The effort proved to be a challenging one, as the cast put themselves in the minds of their respective characters without acting out what happens to them beforehand.
“The first scene we shot of the movie was the church scene. And so Eddie is playing all this pain in his face and singing the song with Baby Doll and we haven’t done anything yet,” said Townsend, who credited Wright for delivering exactly what was needed to convey Eddie’s surprise appearance at the church service Duck attends after being invited by Choir Boy. “All of that is Michael Wright as an actor delivering a brilliant performance because all the pain he’s playing we really haven’t played yet.” [Laughs]
Outside of the actors, Townsend’s challenge in shooting in reverse also came with make up and hair of the period, which he wanted without having anyone wear wigs or anything that wasn’t real to the chosen era.
“I didn’t want to have wigs. Sometimes you’ll see period movies and then everybody is wearing afro wigs and they have fake mustaches. I made the choice with my team to say, ‘We’re gonna shoot the movie in reverse. We’re gonna grow our hair out as long was possible, any facial hair, hair on your head. As we go through the movie, we’ll grow our hair really long for the latter years and then we’ll start to chisel off and cut down. We’ll cut all the facial hair off and then we’ll do processes for the ‘60s.’“The most difficult thing was tracking the emotion of playing scenes that we hadn’t even done already,” he continued. “So when we’re doing the last barbecue scene, we hadn’t done scenes with Eddie fighting, getting kicked out of the group and us going through our stuff. We hadn’t done all those scenes.”
Although the movie was shot in a different order, Townsend and “Five Heartbeats” co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans made sure to never lose sight of family, a noticeable theme found throughout their joint collaboration.
“It was very important because when you see a lot of images of people of color, especially as it relates to men, it was a lot of angry stuff,” said Townsend. “There was never tender moments. We as a people are complicated. We are complicated. But even when people do us wrong, there is forgiveness. I think because of the Christian element of faith that surrounds African American people, there is a sense of forgiveness.”
“I think as Keenen and I were creating the story and developing the story, we wanted a sense of family,” he added. “We didn’t want to do the cliché thing where the guy dies. And then you go like ‘Oooh. Yeah, drugs.’ It was like, ‘We’re gonna have a hopeful moment.’ We’re gonna take you on a journey, but the family will stay together. They’re gonna go through stuff, yes, like any family does. Everybody has their seasons.”
Since it’s release, “The Five Heartbeats” ranks high in the hearts of fans, with memorable characters and scenes as well as a soundtrack that included The Dells hit “A Heart is a House for Love.” As a result, the movie has found a permanent place in the video collections of many who regularly turn watching it into an event via viewing parties with family and friends.
“I think as writers, ‘The Five Heartbeats’ now is a staple in black households,” Townsend stated. “It’s the Thanksgiving movie to watch together. It’s the Christmas movie to watch together. It’s that comfort food when you want to feel good. That sense of family is something that Keenen and I both really believe in because we both have strong families and we know that images are powerful.”
Although the movie is a favorite for many, it didn’t get that way from being in the theaters. Through the magic of home video, “The Five Heartbeats” overcame mixed reviews and an unsuccessful run in theaters via strong word of mouth that culminated in consistent praise and a growing fan base with each showing.
Despite being really hurt from his “baby” not doing well at the box office, the new life of “The Five Heartbeats” on video was a welcome turnaround for Townsend.
“When you create something and you put your heart into and it doesn’t work at the box office…Everybody talks about the Academy Awards. I thought we had an Academy Award winning-go. I thought there were some performances, not because I did it, but I can step outside the movie and say, ‘Wow. These are some amazing performances,’” he said.
“It’s not like ‘Yeah, this is something I did.’ I was like ‘No. Michael Wright is an amazing actor. He pulled off a hell of a performance that should’ve been considered and nominated.’ And so when it didn’t work at the box office, it really hurt. I think everybody then steps back from filmmakers when you don’t have a hit. And then you go like ‘Well, I did my part.’ When it didn’t work, it stings. It’s like ‘Oh my god. They didn’t like my baby.’
“Then when it came out on television and VHS back then and the whole audience, everybody starts talking about ‘This movie is great.’ All of a sudden, it became a staple and people were talking about it. Every year it just kept growing. The movie bombed and then it was kinda trippy. All of us would call each other and be like, ‘People are stopping me on the streets, talking about ‘The Five Heartbeats.’ Hawthorne, who played Big Red, he says, ‘Man. People are yelling at me, calling me Big Red.’ Then Tico is like, ‘They call me choir boy, church boy, peanut head.’ He was like, ‘Rob. Something is going on.’ So we all kind of felt it and it was kind of like this whole move.”
Families and regular fans weren’t the only ones to show love for “The Five Heartbeats.” Real-life singing groups who saw themselves in the members of the group also took to the film.
“There’s just certain things that happen in all groups,” said Townsend. “New Edition, they reached out to me and then they were like ‘Bobby [Brown] is Eddie King’ and so and so is like Duck. And so every group that I see when I go out, they go like, ‘Oooh man. I see a lot of stuff.’
Going deeper into the group aesthetic, Townsend added that it all came down to “human nature,” regarding the perception of members by fans and people who have a hand in the direction of their careers.
“When Keenen and I did the research, what we found was it’s human nature. The women start screaming for one guy more than another. Then the one guy’s head gets big. It’s the trappings,” he said. “When you’re in a group and the group is struggling and then all of sudden you blow up, the fans come in and money comes in and the record label is trying to get the lead singer away so they can do a solo album. It’s all standard business. So we incorporated everything that we heard and it continues to go on because its just human nature.”
As “The Five Heartbeats” celebrates 25 years, fans can look forward to getting the full story behind the making of the film from Townsend himself via an upcoming documentary he hopes to have “ready for June.” While he couldn’t reveal specific details, the entertainer-director did mention that major revelations will be made about those who were in the running to play the Heartbeats as well as turmoil behind the scenes.
Whether it’s watched as a fan, aspiring filmmaker or singing member of a group, Townsend sums up “The Five Heartbeats” with the one word he feels captures what his film and everything that happens in it is all about.
“Family,” Townsend stated. “The film is really about the importance of family in that no matter what storms you go through, families that love each other will always come back together. Family.”