Arrhythmic 'Heartbeats' could use a transfusion of plot details

March 29, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The Five Heartbeats" has plenty of heart but not enough beat.

Occasionally rising to a level of emotional potency, the movie is more commonly too sketchy as it shunts through a familiar litany of show-biz ups and downs in the life of a black singing group through the '60s and '70s.

To begin with, the material is in some sense at war with the formula. It's a great idea and a fresh milieu: those scorchy-hot R&B groups, with their hand jive, their sequin-crazed costumes, and their de rigueur falsetto wailer, that broke through to a mainstream audience in the mid-'60s. For a brief, wondrous moment, Motown became Our Town: the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips.

But at the same time, Keenan Ivory Wayans (who co-wrote) and Robert Townsend (who stars, co-wrote and directed) insist on drawing this material through what might be called the sieve of show-biz bio formula: the movie, far from feeling authentic to its unique roots, feels instead as if it's been reimagined in the form of the bumbling middle-class show-biz bio pix of the '40s and '50s -- more than anything, it reminded me of such non-entities as "Three Little Words," about Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby, or the wan Cole Porter bio "Night and Day."

Tonally, it's all over the highway.

Townsend is still much better at the kind of acerbic material that made "Hollywood Shuffle" such an instant legend: The best scene is purely comic, in which his character, Duck, consults with brother J. T. (Leon) on the latter's addiction to sexual adventuring. The terms of this discourse may not be repeated in a non-NC-17-rated newspaper, but they are explosively funny.

Far more typically, he rushes helter-skelter through the boring parts to get to the good parts; in some respects, the movie is like a two-hour trailer -- it's all highlights.

For example, the group goes from struggle to the cover of Time magazine to a drug dependency problem literally in the space of two minutes. Far too often, in fact, Townsend doesn't bother to dramatize events in the story, but falls back on the lame device of still shots of headlines to advance the narrative.

He also keeps dropping characters. Surely the most dynamic figure in the film is Big Red, played with powerful charisma by Hawthorne James. Red is a record company owner who first signs the 'Beats and then robs them, as is his custom. He's an intriguing character: part con man, part thug, all demonic presence. But after devoting a half hour to the nuances of his perfidy, Townsend limply disposes of him with a headline announcing his conviction.

It's a shame that no 'Beat registers as vividly as Big Red, nor as vividly as the movie requires. Townsend reduces them to cliche from the get-go. The crux of the group are the Matthews brothers, Duck and J. T., whose years of love are trashed by a few weeks of group-busting hostility in a late-movie development that is literally unbelievable.

As a moral statement, "The Five Heartbeats" is more than noble: it argues that love of self and God and trust in brotherhood can overcome all the temptations of the flesh. However admirable, and however lively when the music gets to jumping, it's still not much better than mediocre.

'The Five Heartbeats'

Starring Robert Townsend, Leon, and Michael Wright.

Directed by Robert Townsend.

Released by 20th Century Fox.

Rated R.

** 1/2

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