When it comes to Black cinema, few films hold as much significance and prestige in Black culture as The Five Heartbeats. Released 30 years ago today, the film is directed by Robert Townsend and co-written by Townsend and Kenan Ivory Wayans. The film is a dramedy that spotlights the golden era of R&B quartets and quintets. Loosely based on the lives of the Temptations and other soul giants of the 1950s and 60s, (The Dells appear on the soundtrack and were technical advisers on the film). The Five Heartbeats movie tracks the highs and lows of a group that overcame insurmountable odds to become superstars.
All these years later, the film has definitely stood the test of time and has become one of the most important films of the era—further cementing Townsend’s legacy as a trailblazer of Black filmmaking. Over the length and breadth of his remarkable career, The Five Heartbeats is arguably the crown jewel of Townsend’s filmography.
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On the 30th anniversary of the classic film, BET.com shares our picks for the 10 most iconic scenes from The Five Heartbeats.
J.T. Upstages Flash
J.T. Matthews (Leon), the ladies man of the group, feels like he’s in a career slump. After getting some advice from his brother Duck (Robert Townsend), J.T. goes out and has a sing-off with Michael “Flash” Turner (John Canada). They both compete for the attention of a young lady in the audience on their song, “Just In Case.”
J.T was singing so damn hard that he blew Flash out of the way and the lady fell out right next to her man. J.T. is back!
Sarge Shows Off His Dance Moves
As the old adage goes, “You never judge a book by its cover.” That’s exactly what Terrence “Dresser” Williams (Harry J. Lennix) does when he first catches a glimpse of Sarge (Richard Nicholas). Despite Sarge’s advanced age and chain-smoking, he still has the moves. After Dresser does his best dance combination, Sarge shows him up in front of everybody and becomes the group’s choreographer. Mission accomplished.
Eddie King Jr. Becomes The Lead Singer
When Eddie King Jr. (Michael Wright) slides on stage and grabs the mic, a legend is born. He just left a card game with the lead singer Bobby, but Bobby got shot when they were on the run and couldn’t make the gig. Enter Eddie and the moment he starts singing “Nothing But Love” while the other guys join in, the rest is history.
Duck and His Sister Singing ‘We Haven’t Finished Yet’
In one scene, Duck was struggling to write a new song. He was throwing papers everywhere while his adolescent sister was trying to clean up their room. She pieces together his lyrics and that’s when the magic happens! Duck and his sister come up with “We Haven’t Finished Yet.” Amazingly, the studio executives actually wanted to cut the scene out of the film but Robert Townsend fought for it until he eventually got the green light.
The Utter Savageness of Big Red
From the moment he appears on the screen, Big Red (Hawthorne James) gives off this big savage energy. He seems about as slick as his hair, just as some record executives were known to be during this era. He manipulates Eddie, tries to extort Jimmy, sets him up to be murdered, and then has the nerve to show up to the funeral with crocodile tears, soliciting Eleanor (Diahann Caroll), Jimmy’s widow. She smacks him in the middle of service and tells him to roll out. In every way imaginable, Big Red is one sorry, low-down dude.
Office Hours Are From 9-5
Big Red was Suge Knight before Suge Knight was Suge Knight. Victor “Bird" Thomas (Roy Fegan) learns this lesson the hard way when he interrupts Big Red and his boys to ask for his money. Big Red tells him his office hours are from 9-5 but Bird isn’t trying to hear any of that. After getting smacked up and hung over a balcony, Bird finally understands that he should probably have taken that advice.
Dresser Confronts Eddie After Jimmy’s Funeral
When Jimmy Potter (Chuck Patterson) is killed at the hands of Big Red, it is devastating to the group. After the funeral, the guys meet in the tunnel where Dresser confronts Eddie, who was in cahoots with Big Red just before Jimmy’s death. Dresser commences to give Eddie a major beatdown. But just like a real family, he embraces him as they all weep and asks, “What’d he ever do to you?”
Duck Takes Over His Music
When The Five Heartbeats show up for the talent showcase at the Apollo, they have plenty of obstacles to overcome. The biggest one was that the house pianist has to play the group’s music. After not being able to pick up the song, Duck throws him off the seat and Eddie kills his solo, melting Bird’s girlfriend who was sent to boo them from the front row. The scene has now become a popular gif. The rest of the group goes into an acapella version of “A Heart Is a House for Love.” What a scene!
Eddie Kane Takes Us To Church
After struggling with drug addiction and homelessness, the future doesn’t look too bright for ole Eddie King Jr (Michael Wright). But when Duck accepts an invitation to come to Anthony “Choirboy” Stone (Tico Wells) father’s church, he is stunned to see Eddie giving a soul-stirring rendition of “I Feel Like Going On” in the choir.
Who would have thought that Eddie King Jr. would have put the bug in Duck’s ear to reconcile with J.T.?
The Five Heartbeats Reunite
In the final scene, after ALL the drama they’ve been through, The Five Heartbeats reunite with their family over at J.T.’s crib. After Flash’s whack video comes on the T.V., J.T. calls for the guys to assemble to show everybody how it should be done. J.T., Dresser, and Choirboy join hands but the other two need more convincing.
After Eddie and Duck finally join in, The Five Heartbeats perform one of their old routines one last time, a fitting end to a classic Black film.