For one night only, fans of the film The Five Heartbeats headed to theatres to watch director Robert Townsend’s documentary about the creation of the classic tale of brotherhood, race, and the music industry. My sister and I were among those who sat in the theatre late August marveling at the hard work and dedication Townsend conjured in order to breathe life into his vision, to his dream. Our decision to head to theatre was last minute. While I heard about the documentary several weeks prior, once the day arrived, I was uncertain that I should be going to the movies considering the pressure I was under to meet what felt like endless deadlines. However, within watching the first several minutes, it became apparent that documentary was not a distraction but a divinely ordained respite. Watching Townsend encounter and overcome countless obstacles to then have his vision not meet the immediate success he imagined was an inspiring lesson in perseverance.
Narrated by Townsend himself and including interviews from members of the cast, the documentary follows the chronological life of the film. The challenges are present from the very start as Townsend and friend/collaborator Keenen Ivory Wayans, who penned the script, work to get funding to make the narrative a reality. After several years, the project is picked up by 20th century Fox, and the self-taught director, using the thoroughly compiled “Townsend Bible” hit the ground, balancing the production company’s budget with his vision. What is most admirable about the Townsend is not only his commitment to quality, but his desire to seek talent from black communities. He and his team launched casting calls in several major cities, even auditioning soon-to-rise stars like Don Cheadle and R. Kelly; while they did not land spots on the cast, watching their taped performances solidified that their talent was always present, even back then. It was also fun to watch Townsend’s auditioning practices which felt very imaginative. When auditioning Tico Wells, who would go on to play Choirboy, the two engaged in a multifaceted improvisational play that Townsend narrated lasted over an hour.
Townsend’s innovation was his signature and, in my opinion, is what created the authentic and palpable energy between the actors that translated onscreen. In order to sharpen the actors’ dancing and singing skills, Townsend organized regular talent shows, where the group had to competitively perform. The cast became so emotionally invested in winning that they confronted Townsend about his unsatisfactory performance. Serving as director, actor and everything in between, Townsend fell behind in learning the choreography. In what was a true testament the spirit of the set, The Heartbeats stayed late on set to help Townsend learn the moves. The making of the film was not without its own tension, which included a competitiveness between actors Leon and Michael Wright, who played J.T. and Eddie King, Jr. respectively. But, thankfully they were able to overcome it.
Additional obstacles included issues with the studio that resulted in an onsite executive who looked over Townsend shoulder ensuring that he was within the budget and the timeline. There were the notes from the executives recommending that certain scenes be cut. And then the most detrimental obstacle was the way that the studio decided to promote the film. With the release of New Jack City, theatres in several cities had issues with violence, some even fatal. 20th Century Fox, making false comparisons between the two films, audiences, and the relationship between onscreen and real-life violence, responded by producing a Five Heartbeats trailer devoid of all conflict – a necessary component to any effective narrative. Townsend explained this made the film seem “too soft.” Thus, despite a five star promotional tour, the film simply did not bring numbers to the box office. After years of hard work, of pouring his whole being into the project, it did not soar like he had hoped and dreamed. Which I can only imagine, would be crushing. But the movie’s post-theatre life has solidified it as a classic. It was successful in video sales as well as syndication. I came to know and love it as was a regular feature for the WB’s Saturday Feature Film.
Townsend’s Five Heartbeats journey serves as an inspiration, encouraging those looking to birth big dreams to push on; even though a project may not meet your intended expectations, does not mean it did not have an impact on the lives of others – the true measure of success. The fact that Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans are currently adapting the movie into a Broadway musical shows is just another reiteration of the adage that sometimes we are delayed, not denied.