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The Five Heartbeats

To follow up his critically acclaimed novice effort Hollywood Shuffle, director Robert Townsend turned his attention to the doo-wop acts of the '60s, following the fictitious band The Five Heartbeats from their origins to present day. A sprawling sophomore slump of an effort, 1991's The Five Heartbeats feels like it should either be a good half-hour shorter or an hour longer. Starting with the band contest where their sound starts to gel, the film sets up the characteristics of the five singers: Duck (Townsend) is the quiet songwriter who helps his playboy brother J.T. (Leon) score, while lead singer Eddie (Michael Wright) is always courting danger, as Dresser (Harry J. Lennix) wishes take the lead, and Choirboy (Tico Wells) deals with his father's wish for him to stay away from the devil's music. Spotted, signed, and helped by an agent, the boys rise to the top, but once there their personality quirks keep them from enjoying it. Like most films about becoming famous, The Five Heartbeats concentrates on the group's rise and fall, making the first hour much more enjoyable than the second hour's predictable decline (though the decline is not as telegraphed as many of genre). The eventual failings of the group wouldn't be so off-putting if Heartbeats had kept the music going throughout — like The Idolmaker before it and Velvet Goldmine after it — since the faux period music is excellent and gives the picture a buoyancy that is sorely missed during the more dramatic second half. The performances are uniformly good, particularly Leon as the gigolo brother, but it's hard to know if screenwriters Keenan Ivory Wayans and Townsend didn't think to write all that was needed, or if the scenes that would have made the film flow a little better were edited out to arrive at a theater-friendly two hour running-time. As it exists now The Five Heartbeats isn't entirely satisfying — but when it's on, it's on. Fox's DVD presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with DD 4.0 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Extras include a clip-heavy featurette, a brief Robert Townsend profile, TV spots, and trailers. Keep-case.

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