Evoking highly-treasured, beautiful memories from his childhood on Chicago’s west side sums up how comedian, writer, director and producer Robert Townsend says he feels about “The Five Heartbeats” — his highly-acclaimed, fan-favorite film that focuses on 1960s male groups ups and the up-down world of the music industry in which they so desperately seek to belong.
Townsend, who co-wrote the movie with Keenen Ivory Wayans, also starred in and directed the cult classic which took off in meteoric proportion upon its 1991 release. Now, after decades-long, incessant requests by fervent fans, Townsend has answered their pleas with a new documentary that will take fans along the journey he took to make the film.
“Making The Five Heartbeats” premieres exclusively for one night in 500 theaters across the U.S., Monday, Aug. 27, adding yet another jewel in Townsend’s formidable crown. However, the man often hailed as one of the “Godfathers of the Independent Film World” admits he continues to look for higher mountains to climb because while he’s grateful for his successful career, now spanning more than 30 years, he’s never completely satisfied.
He says he celebrates the chance to now shed even greater light on “The Five Heartbeats” and its origins — a project made possible due to a partnership forged with Fathom Events — the nation’s leading cinema distributor recognized for offering a variety of unique entertainment events in movie theaters.
“If you want to dive deeper into this movie’s creation, this documentary is for you,” Townsend said with words directed to his fans, adding, “I’m humbled by your ongoing love for ‘The Five Heartbeats’ and proud to be bringing you ‘Making The Five Heartbeats.”
He says the idea for “The Five Heartbeats” first began to take shape during a series of intense reflections about one of favorite men’s groups from the ’60s — the Temptations.
“When I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show all dressed up in super sharp clothes and with slick haircuts, dancing with such precision and their showmanship, I knew right then that they were something rare and special,” he said. “Then, when they broke up, I just couldn’t understand.”
“It was a time in history that had somehow been able to elevate my soul. I began along the road — the journey during which I would better understand the ‘why.’”
“Seeing James Brown at the Regal where during the show he changed clothes, I’m sure, at least 10 times — watching groups like the Temptations, the Dells imagining what those brothers had to endure as they went after their dreams — I wanted to return to those days, connect with their emotions. That’s what led me to develop ‘The Five Heartbeats,’” Townsend noted.
Of course, anyone remotely aware of today’s film industry knows that Townsend is far from being simply a one-hit wonder with other critically-acclaimed projects that include: “The Meteor Man,” which marks its 25th anniversary this year and broke ground as the first Black superhero movie; “Hollywood Shuffle;” “Eddie Murphy: Raw” and the WB Network sitcom “The Parent ‘Hood” in which Townsend starred and directed.
Earlier this year, the Motion Pictures Association of America and ICON presented Townsend with the prestigious 2018 Icon Award and, not surprising, he recently moved behind the camera once more to direct an episode of OWN TV’s new hit series, “LOVE IS,” created by Salim and Mara Brock Ali.
As for those who ask why he waited so long before writing, completing, directing and releasing a follow-up documentary about how he made “The Five Heartbeats,” he says he never felt concerned about meeting any particular schedule.
“About 10 years ago I began to get bombarded with the question of ‘when’ almost every time I would encounter a fan or supporter of my work,” he said. “But there was nothing I could do until the pieces came together. Most important, I needed the story. Just in the last few years have things finally clicked and the stars aligned.”
Townsend says one lesson he has learned along the way is that we often cannot achieve success before we have first faced failure.
“Many youth have shared how they became inspired about being a filmmaker after seeing ‘The Five Heartbeats’ and that truly means a lot to me,” he said. “But I’d prefer they become inspired after learning that I never attended film school. I didn’t have one ounce of formal training and I had to use my own credit cards to finance ‘Heartbeats’ because no one would fund it.”
“I had achieved some success in front of the camera and things were really looking good, for a while. Then I became one of so many other Black actors in Hollywood who had real difficulty getting good work. Suddenly I had time on my hands — more than I wanted. I began to wonder what it’d be like to be behind the camera instead. I decided to go for it.”
“It took hard work, there were no shortcuts and I had to always believe in myself.”
“And I guess it’s not all that bad if some only know me because of ‘The Five Heartbeats.’ Of course, I’d rather be recognized because of the many canvases on which I have painted throughout my career. Still, as an artist, if you can paint just one Mona Lisa, that’s pretty impressive.”