The film was released to most North American audiences March 29, 1991 however it was not made available to audiences in other continents until 2002 when a DVD was released prior to another DVD release in 2006 for the film's 15th anniversary. The movie received mixed reviews from critics.
Donald "Duck" Matthews, Anthony "Choir Boy" Stone, J.T. Matthews, Terrence "Dresser" Williams, and Eddie Kane Jr. perform at a Battle of the Bands contest as The Heartbeats. The group loses to Flash and the Ebony Sparks but pleases the crowd and is noticed by Jimmy Potter. Jimmy offers to manage the group, promising them $100 if they do not win the next month's Battle of the Bands contest. After the group loses, Jimmy pays them. When the owner of the club asks to hire them, they agree to let Jimmy manage them.
Bird and The Midnight Falcons witness the Heartbeats rehearsing for a competition and are concerned they could lose; Bird asks his girlfriend to invite her friends and boo The Heartbeats while cheering The Falcons. The announcer, a cousin of one of the Falcons, forces The Heartbeats to use the house piano player. Duck grows frustrated with the house piano player and shoves him off the piano stool. Eddie leads the group in a number that results in Bird's girlfriend fainting in Eddie's arms. The Heartbeats win the contest and the interest of Big Red, who owns Big Red Records. Big Red offers them a deal, but Jimmy and his wife Eleanor, aware of Big Red's corruption, decline. The group instead releases their first single on Jimmy's own independent label and searches for a record company they can trust, but no one else is interested aside from a label which wants to buy Duck's songs for a group they've already signed, The Five Horsemen. The Heartbeats sign with Big Red.
The group goes on the road. The travel is marred by racism and poor living conditions. Dresser's girlfriend visits and reveals she is pregnant, and the group is faced with their first album cover featuring white people, despite the label having earlier approved a photo of the Heartbeats as the cover.
Throughout the mid to late 1960s The Five Heartbeats receive numerous awards, chart several hits, and are featured on magazine covers. Eddie abuses alcohol and cocaine, affecting his performance and prompting his girlfriend Baby Doll to break up with him. Convinced that Jimmy intends to replace him due to his deteriorating condition, he cuts a deal with Big Red to have Jimmy cut out of his contract. Jimmy threatens to go to authorities with information about bootlegged LPs, cooked books and payola that could have Big Red arrested, leading Red to have Jimmy killed. The group learns that Eddie's deceit caused the argument between Jimmy and Big Red. Big Red is convicted of Jimmy's murder, forcing the group to sign to a new record label. Eddie leaves in disgrace.
The Heartbeats add Flash as their lead singer. Duck comes to suspect his fiance, Tanya Sawyer, is having an affair with Choir Boy. He follows her to a hotel, only to discover that Tanya is meeting with J.T., not Choir Boy. Tanya's relationship with J.T. predates her relationship with Duck, but she says she is now in love with Duck. J.T. urges Tanya to disclose the affair, but she refuses. At an awards ceremony celebrating their success, Flash announces he is going solo. Duck reveals that he knows about Tanya and J.T. and also leaves.
The film then skips ahead to the early 1990s. Choir Boy has returned to singing in his father's church. After converting to Christianity, Eddie became clean and sober. He is now married to Baby Doll, sings in Choir Boy's choir, and manages a group. He asks Duck to write songs for them, to which he agrees. J.T. has a wife and two children, including a son named "Duck". The brothers reconcile. The only member to have maintained a singing career is Flash, who transitioned from doo-wop to pop music, and is part of the group Flash and The Five Horsemen.
At a family gathering, Eleanor Potter, coming to terms with her husband's death, forgives Eddie. The Five Heartbeats reunite in front of their families and friends, trying to remember their old moves.Robert Townsend as Donald "Duck" Matthews: Duck hails from a poor family. He is The Five Heartbeats' co-founder and brother of fellow Heartbeat's member J.T. Matthews, and originally was only the composer and musician for the group. He is a permanent vocalist after Bobby disappears. He serves as the movie's narrator, with the film beginning as he reminisces about the group's career.
Leon Robinson as J.T. Matthews: J.T. is the older brother of Duck. A womanizer; him and his brother Duck share a close and sometimes turbulent relationship.
Michael Wright as Eddie Kane Jr.: Eddie comes from an area that features predominantly poor individuals, his own father believing his attempts to start a career in the music industry will be unsuccessful. Similar to David Ruffin, Eddie is the lead vocalist of the band and falls into a life of drugs that eventually leads to his expulsion from the group as well as emotional trauma. Eddie is one of the founding members of The Heartbeats and serves as the crowd pleaser whose voice leads to success in many of their performances.
Tico Wells as Anthony "Choir Boy" Stone: Stone is given the nickname "Choir Boy" (much to his chagrin) for his past as a choir boy in his father's church. Similar to Eddie, Stone's father does not support his decision to become a music artist fearing rock and jazz are "the devil's music." He becomes more of a womanizer as the group becomes more successful, but later goes back to being a part of his father's ministry after the group disbands.
Harry J. Lennix as Terrence "Dresser" Williams: The original choreographer of The Heartbeats, Dresser serves as the groups bass singer and one of the founding members. He is replaced by Ernest "Sarge" Johnson as the choreographer after Sarge out-dances Dresser.
Hawthorne James as Big Red Davis: Corrupt owner of the first record label The Five Heartbeats are signed to.
Chuck Patterson as Jimmy Potter: The Heartbeats' manager, Jimmy is responsible for giving the group the opportunity to perform at more publicized events and receive training from Ernest "Sarge" Johnson.
Diahann Carroll as Eleanor Potter: Jimmy Potter's wife, Eleanor along with her husband are the original supporters of The Five Heartbeats.
John Canada Terrell as Michael "Flash" Turner: Lead singer of Flash and the Ebony Sparks, the Heartbeats' only competition. When Eddie goes into a downward spiral, Flash is brought in as the new lead singer.
Roy Fegan as Bird: Bird is the lead singer of Bird and The Midnight Falcons. Early in the film the character attempts to defeat The Five Heartbeats in a vocal contest. After Big Red orchestrates the murder of Jimmy Potter, Bird joins members of the Heartbeats in testifying against Red and helps to convict him of the murder.
Harold Nicholas of The Nicholas Brothers as Ernest "Sarge" Johnson: Johnson is The Five Heartbeat's choreographer. Sarge is last seen in the hospital on his birthday.
Troy Beyer as Baby Doll: Eddie's girlfriend, who leaves him after he abuses drugs and alcohol. She later marries Eddie and they are shown singing together in a choir.
Theresa Randle as Brenda: Dresser's girlfriend, who later becomes his wife. She and Dresser have a daughter named Monica.
Lamont Johnson as Bobby Cassanova: Bobby and Eddie are the original co-lead singers of the group. Bobby is only seen in the movie's opening scenes when he and Eddie are caught cheating at a high-stakes poker game. Bobby gets shot in the leg and is replaced by Eddie as the lead singer.
Carla Brothers as Tanya Sawyer: Duck's love interest. His earlier attempts to win her heart are unsuccessful but they reconnect at a party for the group and later date. Tanya and Duck were set to be wed, but Duck's suspicion about Tanya and Choir Boy had him follow her to a hotel only to find out that his brother J.T. was the one seeing her. This led Duck to estrange himself from the Heartbeats and his brother for years.
Tressa Thomas as "Duck's Little Sister": Clara Matthews, Duck's little sister, was also his muse, often helping him compose and arrange songs for the group as they did household chores. She was instrumental in arranging the vocals for "We Haven't Finished Yet".
Bird and The Midnight Falcons portrayed by actors Roy Fegan, Gregory Alexander, Roger Rose, Jimmy Woodard: The group The Five Heartbeats compete against in their second onscreen performance. The Midnight Falcons attempt to cheat by ordering their girlfriends to deliberately cheer against The Heartbeats. They would later sign with Big Red Records along with the Five Heartbeats.
Flash and the Ebony Sparks portrayed by John Canada Terrell, Ron Jackson, Recoe Walker and Wayne "Crescendo" Ward: The Ebony Sparks defeat The Five Heartbeats in singing competitions—many of which are rigged—prior to their mainstream popularity. Flash later becomes the lead singer for the Five Heartbeats.
After writing (along with Keenen Ivory Wayans), producing, directing, and starring in his first film Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend had attained near-cult status among independent filmmakers due to his dedication to that film—a project which caused him to max out all his credit cards and spend nearly $100,000 of his own money raised through savings and various acting jobs in order to produce the film. When writing Townsend's first studio film The Five Heartbeats, Townsend and Wayans kept comedy an important aspect of the film, but also explored complex characters in a more dramatic way. After extensive research with rhythm and blues-singing group The Dells, who were renowned for their four-decade career, Townsend used his film to depict a similar story, following the lives of three friends who aspire to musical stardom. Given the setting of the film, he was able to tie in other elements, such as race relations, as well. Due to the production's budgetary constraints, Townsend used little-known actors of the time, with the exceptions of Leon Robinson, Diahann Carroll and Harold Nicholas of The Nicholas Brothers.
To promote the film prior to its release, Townsend, along with the other actors who portrayed the fictional musical quartet The Five Heartbeats (Leon Robinson, Michael Wright, Harry J. Lennix, and Tico Wells) performed in a concert with real-life Soul/R&B vocal group The Dells, one of many groups that inspired the film. The Dells sang and recorded the vocals as the actors lip synced.
A soundtrack for the film was released by Virgin Records, featuring original music by various artists. Both "Nights like This" and "A Heart Is a House for Love" became top 20 hits on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart. Many of the tracks are credited to fictional characters in the film as opposed to the actual vocalists.
- A Heart Is a House for Love - Billy Valentine/ The Dells
- We Haven't Finished Yet - Patti LaBelle, Tressa Thomas, Billy Valentine
- Nights like This - After 7
- Bring Back the Days - U.S. Male
- Baby Stop Running Around - Bird & The Midnight Falcons
- In the Middle - Dee Harvey
- Nothing but Love - The Dells with Billy Valentine
- Are You Ready for Me - Dee Harvey
- Stay in My Corner - The Dells
- I Feel Like Going On - Andraé Crouch (Eddie, Baby Doll and the L.A. Mass Choir)
The film grossed approximately $8,500,000 after being released in 862 theaters throughout North America. However, despite the film's moderate success, it was not well received by a majority of critics. On Rotten Tomatoes The Five Heartbeats accumulated an average of 38%, although only 16 reviews were counted (6 of which were positive, the remaining 10 negative).
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times commented that:
Due to the nature of the film, music montages were often used to progress the plot; critics considered this a major flaw.
The numerous musical performances in the film were highly acclaimed. All Music complimented the Dells' lead singer Marvin Junior (who provided the singing voice for fictional character Eddie Kane Jr.) stating that he was "one of the most underrated voices in pop music." Tressa Thomas' performance of "We Haven't Finished Yet," in particular, was given favorable attention by critics. The film received an ASCAP award for Most Performed Songs in a Motion Picture for the song "Nights Like This."
A DVD was released for the film in 2002, a special edition was also released in 2006 for the film's 15th Anniversary which includes additional content.