On Juneteenth, The Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the 1991 musical, The Five Heartbeats, directed by and starring Robert Townsend.
At the red carpet celebration of the film, I had the opportunity to talk with Robert Townsend, along with fellow actors Leon Robinson, Henry Lennix, John Terrell, and Tico Wells to discuss the legacy of the film. We talked about how the film resonates with modern audiences and how the film’s themes and story are still applicable today.
Robert Townsend (Director, Actor, Donald “Duck” Matthews)
The Knockturnal: How do you think The Five Heartbeats has stood the test of time?
Townsend: With everything going on in the country, the film documents the history of what people of color, especially artists and singers, went through in the ’60s. It’s kind of a full-circle moment because I think many things in the film continue to go on, and the theme of family has made the film survive, made people love it, and became a part of the culture.
The Knockturnal: One of the movie’s themes is “crossing over” and the fears of doing so resulting in cultural assimilation. Do you feel those anxieties resonate today?
Townsend: The beautiful thing is when artists are walking their truth, it speaks volumes to their staying power. When I think of somebody like Dave Chappelle, he was able to use his platform to right a wrong; when he wasn’t making money from his show, he was able to speak directly to the audience. So with The Five Heartbeats, those themes are there, but now those themes have come full circle where people are really walking in their power as artists.
The Knockturnal: Thinking back on the film, was there a musical number that resonated with you the most?
Townsend: Well, we’re having a reunion here now, with all the guys, and I think the very first number, “I Got Nothing But Love” I think that one speaks volume because that’s the first one we performed and we bonded, over rehearsals and everything, and that bond is still going on. So definitely that first number, “I Got Nothing But Love.”
Leon Robinson (Actor, J.T. Matthews)
Robinson: This role is personally distinct because it’s my first, so it brought me into that world, leading me to play very real, special artists. What makes it special to me is the longevity of this film. People love this movie, and for years and years, people have come up to me about how much they love it 30 years later.
The Knockturnal: It lives on
Robinson: Yeah, it lives on, and I think for people of color especially, it’s like our Wonderful Life, it’s the movie we watch during the holidays, Christmas, and family reunions. It’s become a classic, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
The Knockturnal: What is it about the film that helped big its legacy and stand the test of time?
Robinson: Y’know, I think what’s really remarkable about it is that it still resonates with people today. There are things we go through as a singing group that is real today. There are so many people that from the time we made this movie, musicians came up to me and said, ‘that’s our story’ ‘that’s what happened to us’ when it resonates like that, the film can be passed down from generation to generation.
Robinson: A history of music, a history of what artists had to go through, from the ’60s to the ’90s and even today. It’s been a constant struggle for artists in this business to establish themselves, make money, own their masters, to have control of who they are. We’ve come a long way, and it’s because of groups like The Five Heartbeats, The Temptations, to pave the way for artists today.
John Terrell (Actor, Michael “Flash” Turner)
The Knockturnal: How do you think the film stood the test of time?
Terrell: The beautiful thing about great filmmaking is that it resonates. We more or less told the story about black rock & roll as best we could. All the demons inherited in that, and I think we did it really well. I’m blessed that my career began with She’s Gotta Have It, so I’m stuck with two historical things that impacted the black community. So I’m having the shit haha.
The Knockturnal: So what elements of the film do you think will resonate the most with modern artists?
Terrell: When we first started the film, we didn’t know what we made, but Robert (Townsend) directed us, saying, ‘I want moments in my film that are memorable’ that was his direction. We had six weeks of rehearsal to flush out the script, make changes, and there were times he just trusted us. Just gonna roll the camera, see what happened, and some surprising things happened. I cried at the scene where Dresser (Henry Lennix) beats up Eddie King Jr. (Michael Wright), and he forgave him. That brought me to tears. And the scene where the little girl had the singing duel with Robert (Townsend) in the room, I was like, ‘aw, that’s so cute.’ There are just moments in the film and when they got stopped by the police. Ugh. and that resonates even more now.
The Knockturnal: Talk about topical.
Terrell: Yeah. So it’s timeless.
The Knockturnal: Is there a musical moment in the film you consider a personal favorite?
Terrell: I guess the opening when I won the duel.
The Knockturnal: That’s a good reason.
Terrell: Yeah, the hard part was when I had the singing duel with Leon, and we had established good tension between us. It was no joke.
The Knockturnal: All real?
Terrell: All real. So when I had to lose, I wasn’t acting, I was like, “I gotta lose to this guy?” Don’t get called acting that was for real, that was a hard day at work.
The Knockturnal: It felt real; I saw the look on your face like, “this guy’s gotta beat me?”
Terrell: Haha, Leon (Robinson) helped me be brilliant because the tension we had; we weren’t joking. Now I got the Napoleon complex, and he’s taller than me. My issues came out.
The Knockturnal: Well, you have the awesome jacket, so that’s a win.
Terrell: Thank you very much.
Tico Wells (Actor, Anthony “Choirboy” Stone)
The Knockturnal: How do you think the film has stood the test of time?
Wells: When Robert (Townsend) first directed, he said, “I want this to be a classic,” so every day he had planted that seed in us, in everybody. He spoke this into existence, and it started off real slow. It wasn’t a box office hit, it folded in the theaters, but it kept growing over the past 30 years. I didn’t have this grey beard back then, haha.
The Knockturnal: So what elements do you think helped that slow build get bigger and resonate with an audience, especially today?
Wells: The acting was good, the music was good, the writing and cinematography all good. It took up a lot of space in terms of making the film, a lot of locations. No many directors get that much to play with on their second film. Robert had done Hollywood Shuffle; then, they gave him a lot of toys to play with. Kinda like The Matrix; their first film was a much smaller picture, but then, Matrix. Ryan Coogler too.
Wells: Yeah, it’s crazy. The talent was there.
The Knockturnal: So what elements do you think modern artists will resonate with in the film.
Wells: The songs and the beginning of the look behind the scenes of a real band. We always love that; we wanna see what Michael Jackson was doing when he woke up. Where did he go to the dentists? What was that ride like? We wanna see the real lives of people, even in a fictional group. They felt like a real group.
The Knockturnal: When you were preparing for your role, did you study any real groups? I know there was some influence from The Temptations.
Wells: I grew up with that. I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s so The Temptations, Motown, The Four Tops, all that that was me. I was walking down 43rd street when I heard the rumor that Robert (Townsend) was making a movie. I was living in New York, and I looked up in the sky, the skies doing these steps, and said, “I could see myself doing that” I saw a vision of me doing it. When I met up, he didn’t give me a script, just improve, and Robert turned to the casting person and said, “He’d be good for Choir Boy” I didn’t even know what Choir Boy was, so I was made for that.
Harry Lennix (Actor, Terrence “Dresser” Williams)
The Knockturnal: So what do you think contributed to the film’s legacy lasting 30 years?
Lennix: I think it’s all about the story. It’s a story of love, redemption, reconciliation. It’s almost biblical, this story of five guys who, no matter what they’re faced with, can come together and go on in their lives, providing entertainment in a group and individually. But I think there is something almost parable-like about it. I love it, and of course, the music is awesome. InIn many ways, I think we set a template for other movies that came along later, whether it be black or white.
The Knockturnal: Was there a musical number you remember standing out for you personally?
Lennix: For whatever reason, my favorite is “Nothing But Love,” the first song we do in the movie. The amazing entrance of Eddie King Jr, played by the great Michael Wright, and it’s such a great song. I think that’s probably my favorite. A Heart is a “House of Love” is also great, but “Nothing But Love.”
The Knockturnal: And now that we have so many artists coming up independently, what do you think they would take out of the movie or what would you want them to take from the movie?
Lennix: It’s interesting. I guess when we did the movie in ’89 going into ’90, it was a nostalgic movie. Now, this is nostalgia going into nostalgia. I think it’s a time capsule for how people got their music out. In some ways, it changed radically; I don’t think it’s ever coming back. I looked at what it took to get a record out and get some air time, even when you’re dealing with someone like Big Red (Hawthorn James), with connections and all that. It’s a little different now; I think entertainment has become more democratized, the potential is there. Even if the money isn’t there like it used to, I think the power is more in the hands of the individual artists. The internet gives them the opportunity to put their music out on a platform that’s not beholden to nefarious big wig people who used to run this industry completely. Maybe they still do, but now there’s potential to do this ourselves.