THE FIVE Heartbeats'' is an initially clumsy film, one that disarms as it moves along. By the time it is ended, you are glad to have known these people.
''The Five Heartbeats'' was co-authored by Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans (''In Living Color'') and was directed by Townsend, whose previous (and only) film was the 1987 ''Hollywood Shuffle.''
''Shuffle'' was a collection of comedy sketches. ''The Five Heartbeats'' is something quite different. There are some laughs (with these two doing the script, this is inevitable), but, at core, the new film is a largely serious account of five young men who formed a singing group in 1965.
The Heartbeats are Eddie, the lead singer who will eventually succumb to drugs, J.T., the Heartbeat who is addicted to women, ''Dresser,'' who believes in wife and children, ''Choirboy,'' whose father is a minister, and Donald, who writes the songs these men sing.
The story of the Heartbeats could easily be the story of The Supremes or even The Beatles, who were popular at the time of ''The Five Heartbeats.''
All these groups, fictional and real, had similar experiences. Harmonious at first, these people would soon split, some of them victimized by drugs and booze, some eager to go out on their own.
That's what happens to the man who replaces Eddie when Eddie is lost to drugs. The new lead singer wants to go out on his own and picks an awful time to announce this decision. At the same time, the group is being menaced by the evil owner of a record company, a man willing to commit murder to keep his talent in line.
Townsend plays Donald, Michael Wright is Eddie, Leon is J.T., Harry J. Lennix is Dresser, and Tico Wells is Choirboy. Chuck Patterson is the group's manager, Harold Nicholas is the man who does the dance routines for the group, Hawthorne James is Big Red, the record company owner, and Diahann Carroll, who hasn't done a film since the 1974 ''Claudine,'' is the wife of the manager of the group. Carroll seems absolutely untouched by time.
''The Five Heartbeats'' is heavy, even amateurish at start, but by the time the men get on the road, the audience is with them. There is, thank you, little about race in the film. The only time we get this is when the five men are traveling the South where they are stopped by redneck cops who demand that the group do a number to prove they are singers.
It is a humiliating incident, but it is also the point at which the film begins to intrigue.
''The Five Heartbeats'' is eventually an almost sweet movie. It has its ugly side, but it is not stressed. In substance, the new film is about people and friendship, the kind that weathers the years.
If you know anything about singing groups, you may be able to chart the plot line, but at the same time, you will like the principal characters.
The score includes 13 new songs, some of which are sung the way they were from 1965 on, some of which are done Patti LaBelle style, long before she appeared on the scene.
Well, Townsend was apparently trying to please both audiences, the 1965 and the 1991, and if he doesn't do it with song, he does it, overall, with his film. The occasionally bad acting, sometimes sloppy photography and frequent jumpiness may, in the end, be excused.
''The Five Heartbeats''
** Five young men form a singing group in 1965.
CAST: Robert Townsend, Michael Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix, Tico Wells, Diahann Carroll, Harold Nicholas, Chuck Patterson, Hawthorne James
DIRECTOR: Robert Townsend
RATING: R (language, violence)
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes