“It’s one of the movies you watch together at Thanksgiving or Christmas,” said Townsend (whose family includes four kids, ranging in age from 16 to 28). “A lot of people really consider it an American classic.”
At 7 p.m. Saturday, Memphis fans of “The Five Heartbeats” will have a chance to “watch together” with none other than Townsend and another of the movie’s stars, the heartthrob actor Leon Robinson (usually credited simply as “Leon”). The two men are hosting a 25th-anniversary screening of the film that is intended to be the centerpiece event of this year’s 17th annual On Location: Memphis Film & Music Fest, which takes place today and Saturday at the Malco Studio on the Square.
Townsend, 59, and Robinson, 54, will introduce the film and answer questions after the show. They’ll also take part in a
6 p.m. “red carpet” meetand-greet before the movie. A “Celebrity After Party” with Leon follows at 10 p.m. at the Hard Rock Cafe on Beale Street.
The event marks Townsend’s second appearance at the festival. In 2012, he hosted a screening of his then-new film
“In the Hive,” an inspirational drama about an unorthodox school for so-called at-risk boys.
Townsend said the theme of the earlier movie “really resonated” with the Memphis community. In comparison, the “Heartbeats” screening will be something of a nostalgia trip as well as “something that gives you hope,” Townsend said.
“The film has a big heart,” he said. “It’s about family; it’s about faith. You follow these five men on their journey together, and when it’s all said and done, it’s fulfilling. I think at the core of it is faith. It has a healing message.”
Memphis lawyer Angela Green, now in her second year as president of On Location: Memphis, said “Heartbeats” was an appropriate film for the festival’s emphasis on the diverse “cultural communities” of Memphis. These include the music and faith communities as well as various ethnic, racial and international communities.
Some of the films about “the black experience” screening at On Location i nclude the documentaries “The Wizard of Beale Street,” about Rarecas “Rod” Bonds of
the Beale Street Flippers, and “Women of Stax: Soul Sistahs.” Short films from such places as Japan, Germany and Cuba are on the schedule, and the new Hindi-language feature “Nil Battey Sannata” (“The New Classmate”) screens at 6 p.m. today, presented by the India Association of Memphis.
“That’s always our goal: to add more and more films that represent more and more of Memphis’ cultural communities,” Green said. At the same time, this year’s festival is more compact than in the past, with screenings and panels restricted to today and Saturday, while the awards ceremony is Sunday at the Atrium in Overton Square.
Along with his more politica lly motivated contemporary, Spike Lee, Townsend represented a new vanguard of black independent filmmakers whose debut features were funny, novel and culturally specific, yet accessible. Townsend’s first film, “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987), was a DIY low-budget spoof of racial stereotyping in American entertainment; “The Five Heartbeats” was only his second nondocumentary feature (it followed the concert film “Eddie Murphy: Raw”), but it marked a huge leap in ambition and investment. Backed by Fox with a (relatively modest, for a studio) budget of about $8.7 million, the movie is an ensemble comedy-drama that chronicles several decades in the lives of the Five Heartbeats, a fictional black vocal group that finds success but also cocaine, alcohol and other distractions. Townsend — who co-wrote the script with Keenen Ivory Wayans — plays group cofounder Donald “Duck” Matthews, while Leon is Duck’s womanizing older brother, J.T.
“As a filmmaker, I really love movies, and I think that when you watch ‘The Five Heartbeats,’ you see someone going for a masterpiece,” Townsend said. “I was so meticulous about the hair, the music, the wardrobe, the extras, and I just thank God that for that movie, everything lined up. I think that as an artist you can paint a Mona Lisa, and I think for a lot of people, this is a Mona Lisa to the black community.”
Townsend said the band in the movie is modeled to a large extent on The Temptations, but his technical advisers for the film were The Dells, a vocal group (“Oh, What a Night,” “Stay in My Corner”) based in the filmmaker’s hometown of Chicago. “I come from a very rough neighborhood, but I always looked at the ghetto, the ’hood, as glorious. It looked beautiful to me. When I was growing up in the ’60s, the people had such a joy, the church had such a joy, so if I captured anything in the movie, it was the beauty of the ’hood.”
Townsend said the Memphis event is one of several 25th-anniversary “Five Heartbeats” screenings.
“I just think there are certain movies that have a momentum that never stops, and this is one of those movies. That’s all you can hope for as a filmmaker, that you produce something that people want to see again and again.”
Robert Townsend will be in Memphis this weekend for the On Location: Memphis film festival.