If you have not seen The Five Heartbeats, directed by the renown Robert Townsend,then I suggest you stop reading this post and go watch it immediately. This post will be filled with SPOILERS.
When Eddie King, Jr. (affectionately pronounced with an overly southern drawl that makes King sound like “Kane”), slid across the stage for the opening of “Nothing But Love,” I knew I would adore this movie. It also stood as a forewarning to the viewer to hold on to their seats for a thrill ride of a film.
Released in 1991, this film about a fictitious soul group is still relevant over 23 years later. Not only is the film entertaining, but what I will discuss in this post is how educational it is as well. For the independent musician, this movie is filled with meaningful lessons in life and business. Below, I have listed the top ten lessons you can learn from “The Five Heartbeats.”
In business as well as in life, the old adage is true that, “The show must go on.” This brings me to the 1st lesson that you can learn from The Five Heartbeats…
Lesson One: Be Prepared … For Anything.
Everything seemingly went wrong for the group at the beginning sequence of the film. Their original lead singer was shot and unavailable to attend their talent showcase, which altered the entire lineup for the group. They did not allow circumstances that were out of their control stop them from performing. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. Everything may not be perfect, but don’t allow that to detour you. View obstacles as ways to make you stronger, not weaker. For The Heartbeats, their beginning obstacles helped them to form an outstanding group. The show must go on … one monkey don’t stop no show J
Lesson Two: Get a Good Manager
Everyone needs a person in their corner that is loyal. A manager’s role is not only to handle the day-to-day business for their client, but to also have that person’s best interest at heart. Mr. Potter filled this role dynamically for the group. He negotiated contracts, event bookings and ensured the best record deal was secured for The Heartbeats. He was so passionate about his role that it eventually led to his death. Because he refused to give up on the group he managed and nurtured from the beginning, he was killed for what he loved and believed in.
Lesson Three: Don’t Be Too Proud To Accept Help
No man is an island. We all need someone to help us in one way or another. Knowing this fact does not make you weak. In fact, it makes you wise. Acknowledging what you need help with, and then having the courage to accept and in some cases even ask for assistance can prove beneficial beyond measure.
Initially, the group rejected the help of the reputable choreographer, Sarge. However, once they got over their pride and the idea of needing assistance, the additional help advanced their careers to the next level. Sarge assisted The Heartbeats with better stage presence and showmanship.
Lesson Four: Success Doesn’t Happen Overnight
Regardless of how talented you may be, success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes long hours of work and dedication to achieve success, particularly in the entertainment/music industry. The beginning stage of The Heartbeats’ career was not glamorous at all. They paid the proverbial “dues,” by playing in hole-in-the-wall venues, sleeping in shabby hotels and traveling together in a single car. They put in the work to promote themselves and their music (which is another valuable lesson: You have to be willing to constantly work at your craft). Stay the course. Your hard work and dedication will pay off eventually.
Lesson Five: Deal With Your Haters By Being Successful
The Heartbeats experienced the greatest form of “hate” in the film by a rival singing group, Bird and the Midnight Falcons. Not only did the rival group speak negatively about The Heartbeats, but they went so far as to sabotage an important performance. Dealing with adversaries is a part of the business, but the best way to handle these situations is not by retaliation, but success. Showing is always better than telling. Allow your talent as an artist to speak for you. In the case of The Heartbeats, their raw talent was undeniable. So, in spite of everything that was working against them, they gave an unforgettable performance that was based on pure talent instead of gimmicks or schemes. Focus your energy on being the best version of yourself possible. Doing this will benefit you far greater than trying to retaliate against any competition.
This is not to say that your road to success will be easy. Especially as a new artist, there will be times when you will have to prove yourself. As a relatively unknown artist, people may doubt your talent. But again, showing is better than telling. The Heartbeats had to prove themselves countless times. One instance that particularly stood out for me is when they were forced to sing on the side of a dark road to a police officer who doubted they were a real singing group. Granted, this issue in the film was more of a racial conflict, but the principle still applies. This concept translates to modern day concerns for artists who are trying to make a name for themselves. Let your work speak for you. Your talent (and presentation of said talent) will say far more than anything else.
Lesson Six: Know The Business And Protect Yourself
As much as this industry is about creativity and musicianship, it is also about the logistics, hence the term, “Music Business.” With this in mind, ignorance is not really bliss. Ignorance of your business affairs in the entertainment industry is detrimental to any level of longevity or true success. People often use the term “Rich and Famous,” but without the proper business acumen, you could actually be famous but never rich. However, it does not have to be that way. Especially now with more artists taking it upon themselves to release music and products independently, you can have the best of both worlds in attaining fame and fortune.
It is important to know and protect your rights as an artist. Have your material properly copyrighted, manage your funds accurately, read contracts thoroughly, etc. This, of course, is a lot to manage on your own, which is why having a manager is essential. However, even a manager needs assistance in handling all of an artists needs, which is why personnel such as accountants, consultants and attorneys are all key players in the success of an artist.
The Heartbeats didn’t become wise to the foul business practices of their record label, “Big Red Records,” until after their contracts where signed. The same hand that was feeding them was essentially the same hand that was setting the group up for financial failure. Unfortunately, this is a far too familiar story for many new artists. The best way to avoid these types of situations is to read everything thoroughly and have an attorney review it as well before you sign anything. Also, don’t fall for the urgency ploy. If someone tells you that you must sign now or the deal is off the table, just let it pass. Anyone who is serious about business will allow you adequate time to have all paperwork properly reviewed.
Lesson Seven: Beware Of The Pitfalls
We’ve all heard the term “Sex, Drugs, and Rock-and-Roll.” There may be a reason that the musical element is the last thing mentioned in this phrase. Perhaps because the music is an afterthought in an industry that is filled with promiscuity, substance abuse, betrayal and almost any other negative thing you could think of. The entertainment industry has its good and bad points. In some instances, things once viewed upon as favorable can quickly turn sour. It is important to remain level-headed and grounded. This may be easier said than done once you reach a certain level of success. It may be difficult to balance reality from fame when the entire world seems to be at your fingertips. But, regardless of whatever level of success you may attain, there are dangers to be careful of at every point.
For The Heartbeats, there were girls who only became interested in them once they became famous. Betrayal almost seemed inevitable for the group in some instances. Duck Matthews was betrayed by his own brother who as having an affair with his fiancé. The group was betrayed as well when Flash left the group to pursue a solo career, only after achieving Gold-Record success. It is true that those closest to us can hurt us the most. This is why we must be careful. And, not in the sense of being suspicious of everyone, but in attempting to live our lives by the Golden Rule. We should truly treat others the way we would want to be treated. If everyone really operated in this way, the world would be such a wonderful place.
Lesson Eight: Your Brand Is Important
As I discussed in my last post, your brand is important beyond measure. Please visit that post for more insight on how to create and evolve your brand to relay the message you desire.
The Heartbeats realized this fact fairly early in their career. The record label wanted to release the group’s album without an image of the band on the cover. Instead, the label wanted an image of a beach-themed fun day. While it is not necessary to use your face to brand yourself, it is necessary to ensure that whatever image you use coincides with the message you want to present. And, for the group, a day at the beach did not represent the soulful essence of The Heartbeats. This was also another race issue present in the film that crosses over to everyday situations for artists.
Lesson Nine: Kill ‘Em With Kindness
Any fan of the film is familiar with the infamous scene where Big Red dangles Bird over a balcony in retaliation for him questioning his business tactics. Even though Bird did not deserve to have his life put in danger, he was rude and unprofessional in the way he approached Big Red to question him regarding the bookkeeping procedures. There is no excuse for what happened to Bird, but I would beg to argue that this scenario would have played out differently if Bird approached the situation in the correct manner. We learned that Big Red was a bad businessman, but despite this fact, there is a right and wrong way to express any concerns or displeasure you may have with those you work with.
I’ve always advised clients that public relations is not so much of what you say but how you say it (or present it). You can definitely get more with honey than with vinegar. Proper conflict resolution skills are one of the best tools you should add to your repertoire for successful business. So, while Bird had every right to question Big Red on how his money was being allocated, he picked the wrong time, place and tactic to do so. Take this matter to heart. If you discover discrepancies in business, never hesitate to address them, but do so in a way that will achieve favorable results. Bullying, loud voices and expletives will only get you so far. And usually, it will not result in the outcome you seek.
Lesson Ten: Redemption
The Five Heartbeats is a story with many themes, but one of the most refreshing is that it is a tale of redemption. Despite the mistakes and missteps, the group’s constant changes and obstacles, they were always able to ultimately pick themselves up and succeed. This message is never more present than in  the climatic scene in the church when Eddie King sings “I Feel Like Going On,” after his life’s turmoil of substance abuse and other challenges. This is also seen when brothers JT and Duck Matthews reconcile after years of estrangement. And, redemption is really what we all hope for. At the bottom of our hearts, we all hope that we can be forgiven and made whole in spite of our mistakes and shortcomings. Musician or not, that is a universal theme that we all wish to be blessed with.
I know this post was longer than usual, but I have loved this movie from the first time I watched it in 1991. It is a film I watch often and I wanted to share with you what I believe are valuable lessons. What else can be learned from this film? I’d love to hear your feedback.


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