'Heartbeats' reflects Townsend's life, loves

April 01, 1991|By Ken Parish Perkins | Ken Parish Perkins,Dallas Morning News

In "The Five Heartbeats," Robert Townsend looks geekish as fictional R&B songwriter Donald "Duck" Matthews, a man who possesses a gentle strength and unwavering commitment to his talent. He wears colorful ties and iridescent silk suits.

In person, however, Townsend appears "GQ"-ish in baggy, pleated pants, a red shirt and wide-rim glasses. He looks like the successful filmmaker and comedian he is. Sharp. Witty. Confident.

But after spending well over an hour talking shop with 200 eager Dallas students, it's easy to see what Townsend and Duck have in common.

Passion.

In one scene of "The Five Heartbeats," Duck grabs a piano player who is deliberately butchering his music and tosses him to the floor.

"I have a passion for my filmmaking like Duck has a passion for his music," says Townsend, who wrote, produced and directed the film. "I mean, if someone walks on my set and disrupts, I'd go crazy. We absolutely love, and guard, what we do."

''The Five Heartbeats'' explores the rise and fall of a soul-music quintet, an emotional look at the darker dramas that helped define what it was like to be young and black and hungry for fame in the 1960s.

"I've always been fascinated with music," says Townsend, who grew up listening to The Temptations, The O'Jays and The Dells, who are technical advisers on the film. "You see the Temps and want to know: What are they like off the screen? Are they really friends? And why do groups break up? I wanted to tell that kind of story."

He describes it as a comedy that took a serious turn. While traveling with The Dells (the veteran soul group that turned out "Stay In My Corner" and "Oh, What a Night"), he heard their tales of playing crummy performance halls, encountering racism and being ripped off by corrupt record-company owners.

"They told me about getting $17 a man, but the hotel cost $14 -- and that didn't include food and clothes," Townsend says. "Their only way to make money was performing, and when the clubs weren't packed, they came out on the losing end." Two months of that made it an unfunny affair.

While "The Five Heartbeats" contains some humor, its centerpiece is a friendship loosely based on Townsend's relationship with his childhood buddies from Chicago.

Townsend was raised on the city's west side, a rough neighborhood where, he says, half of his friends grew up without fathers.

"For us, the question was, 'What is a man?'" Townsend says. "In 'The Five Heartbeats,' we explore what it is to be a man. What it is to be together. Partners. Tight. Like my friends, we've always struggled to open ourselves up to true relationships.

"One of my good friends told me that Robert Townsend is all over this movie," Townsend says. "That's true. There are a lot of things in the film I personally feel and believe in.

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