9 Things I Learned (and One Thing I Didn't) From Robert Townsend's Fun and Informative Documentary, The Making of The Five Heartbeats

Illustration for article titled 9 Things I Learned (and One Thing I Didn't) From Robert Townsend's Fun and Informative Documentary, The Making of The Five Heartbeats
Photo: Kevin Winters (Getty Images)

On Monday night, I went to check out the documentary dedicated to the creation of the classic Robert Townsend movie The Five Heartbeats. Full disclosure: The Five Heartbeats is my second-favorite movie of all time. Coming to America currently occupies that No. 1 slot, but it’s really more like 1 and 1a.


I own The Five Heartbeats on VHS tape and DVD, and when I’m bored, I start singing “Nights Like This (I Wish Raindrops Would Fall)” and when I’m feeling froggy, I perform the “A Heart Is a House for Love,” the a cappella, talent-show winning version, by myself in perfect five-part harmony. My love is real.

I learned quite a few things of note, but there is still one mystery outstanding, and maybe I’m the only person on the planet who cares.

I also had the opportunity to talk with Robert Townsend before seeing the documentary, The Making of the Five Heartbeats, so some of what I learned will be buttressed with info from the writer, director, actor, etc.

Before jumping into what I learned, the documentary itself was cool. Because of the content, I was going to enjoy it no matter what, but it definitely would have benefited from some actual scenes from the movie when they were referenced it. That’s a minor quibble, but actual film footage (including musical numbers) was noticeably absent.

1. He wanted Denzel Washington to play the pivotal role of Eddie KING Jr.

Townsend and Kenan Ivory Wayans (the other writer for the film) created a dream cast for this movie, which also included hopes for David Allan Grier to play Dresser (!!!!). But as he mentioned in the documentary, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. The film took so long to make that by the time they were able to do so they were likely not going to be able to afford Denzel, who would receive his first Academy Award for Glory while they were filming The Five Heartbeats. Also, by the time they got to making the film, Kenan had left the project to work on In Living Color and took several of the hopeful cast with him.


2. I capitalized KING in that first point just to reinforce what most of us know but others refuse to accept—the man’s name is Eddie KING Jr.

It wasn’t addressed in the doc itself, but there’s about 15 minutes after the documentary ends where other things are discussed. One of those items is the fact that Michael Wright plays EDDIE KING JR. But because he viewed him as a character with southern roots, in that infamous scene where he says “can’t nobody sang like Eddie Kaaaaaaang,” he gave King the twang, but many folks heard “Kane,” creating one of the longest running debates in the black community. Bets have been placed on this question. And for the sake of the culture, keep it going. But the man’s name is Eddie King, Jr. Confirmed by the character himself.


3. They attempted to get Whitney Houston for the role of Baby Girl, Eddie King’s girlfriend and eventual wife.

Buuuuut her agent thought the role was too small. During that time, they were seeking out bigger roles for her. In 1992, she’d star in The Bodyguard. Apparently after seeing The Five Heartbeats though, she called Townsend and told him that she’d made a mistake passing up on the role.


4. The film flopped at the box office.

I definitely didn’t see it in theaters and apparently nobody else did either. While the movie is excellent, the trailer for it was trash (according to everybody involved with it) and didn’t get anybody interested because it looked like a “soft” film. So it bombed. Even Hawthorne James, who played Big Red, acknowledged that after seeing the trailer, he wouldn’t have wanted to see the movie. Home-movie sales propelled it into the hearts and minds of folks everywhere.


5. Townsend had to fight for the duet scene of him and his little sister creating and singing the song “We Haven’t Finished Yet.”

At nearly every turn, the studio wanted to cut the scene from the film. They wanted it cut for budget purposes, for time purposes and for continuity purposes. But Townsend wanted that scene badly and fought for it through to the end. What saved it was a test screening in Pasadena, Calif., where the scene stood out as a fan favorite, saving it for the final cut.


6. They had three open casting calls in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles and lots of pre-famous famous folks came out to audition.

Townsend told me about all of the folks that came out to audition and how many of them would come to fame in their own right but wouldn’t tell me who. In the documentary, you see folks like Michael Jai White, Dorien Wilson, R. Kelly and Public Announcement, Niecy Nash and Don Cheadle, to name a few.


7. When Townsend and Wayans finished their script, it was initially passed on by every studio.

This was in the ’80s. It took years for it to get to the point of being greenlit by Fox in 1990.


8. The movie was largely inspired by the story of The Temptations, though The Dells came on as technical advisers.

Another long-lasting black community debate is which group inspired the creation of The Five Heartbeats. Many folks say The Dells but the answer is The Temptations. Townsend wanted to understand why the group broke up and sought to create a movie that explored that. In fact, he wanted to bring David Ruffin (his favorite singer) and Eddie Kendricks in as technical advisers but the studio said no, just in case Berry Gordy thought Big Red was a portrayal of him and felt compelled to sue. Hence the arrival of The Dells into The Five Heartbeats universe.


9. The scene where the group argues about white people being used on The Five Heartbeats’ first album cover came DIRECTLY—lifted near verbatim—from his very first conversation with The Dells.

The first time Townsend had an opportunity to meet The Dells, he asked why there were white people on the (original) cover for first album, Oh, What A Night. After hearing them explain how the studio thought that white people seeing them as black men on the cover might hurt sales, Townsend wrote that scene into the movie.


And what didn’t I learn? I’m glad you asked.


If you’ll remember, Bobby was the person who got shot in the leg after cheating in a poker game with Eddie to start the movie. He and Eddie escape but he gets shot in both of his legs and Eddie runs into the club, takes the mic and sings his heart out. I brought this up with Townsend on our phone call and he laughed and said that I was truly a fan of the movie for asking about that and acknowledged it as a plot hole.


See, Bobby was the original lead singer of The Five Heartbeats, but ya know, he lost his job that night and was never heard from again. I only found out he was the original lead singer in a convo with Townsend years ago. Point is, Bobby was an original Heartbeat; I’m not really sure Eddie was even in the group, but somehow, he ended up there and, well, the rest is history.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



Speaking of long-lasting black community debates can we get to the bottom of:

Did Aaron Hall really say “dumb bitch” around the :44 second mark in Piece Of My Love?