Robert Townsend, best known as a comedian on HBO specials ("Partners in Crime"), a comedy director with two films under his belt ("Hollywood Shuffle" and "Eddie Murphy Raw") and an accomplished actor ("A Soldier's Story," "The Mighty Quinn") has decided to (mostly) play it straight with his latest and most ambitious effort, "The Five Heartbeats."

Give him credit for not resting on his laurels; Townsend could easily have done a "Hollywood Shuffle II," but he'd obviously rather expand his horizons by attempting something new.Unfortunately, while it may be new to him, the audience will find "The Five Heartbeats" awfully familiar.

This is a sentimental, by-the-numbers yarn about five young friends who form a singing group in the mid-'60s and spend the next 20 years struggling through various soap opera plot developments. And if you've seen more than five movies in your lifetime, you've seen all this before.

Yet, there are so many individual elements - especially the musical numbers - that come vividly alive, it's hard to simply dismiss it.

The story has five young New Yorkers coming together in 1965, each with a different movie ailment - the womanizer, the control freak who will get strung out on drugs, the straight-arrow son of a preacher whose girlfriend gets pregnant, etc. They form a musical group and struggle to make the big time - then when they do, they struggle to stay together.

An ensemble piece, the film has no particular lead role, and several actors really shine, including Townsend as Donald "Duck" Matthews, the group's songwriter and organizer; Michael Wright as lead singer Eddie, who will wind up a broken alcoholic and drug addict; Leon, as Matthews' brother J.T., a sex addict who ultimately sees how empty his life is; and Harold Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers) as old Sarge, who teaches the boys choreography, as well as values, of course. It's also nice to see Diahann Carroll, in her first film role in 17 years (and she doesn't seem to have aged a day).

The musical numbers are first-rate, with a dozen or so original songs that are terrific, and, especially in the second half, there are a number of very funny comic set-pieces, revealing the real strengths of director/co-writer Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans, who co-wrote the screenplay (he's the star/creator of TV's "Living Color").

In fact, more comedy and less sentimentality would certainly have helped. The shift from broad comic strokes to hangdog seriousness never quite gels.

And a stronger narrative drive could have made all the difference; blackout skits are fine for slapdash comedy, but a real movie needs story and character development. The film might also have benefited from being about 30 minutes shorter.

It does seem kind of ironic that Townsend and Wayans, who spoofed movie cliches so well with their respective comedies "Hollywood Shuffle" and "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," should allow "The Five Heartbeats" to be so riddled with predictable soap opera plot devices.

Still, Townsend is ingratiating, both as a director and as a screen presence. He has an inherent ability to invest a gentle sweetness into the proceedings, something not many modern filmmakers can manage.

On the whole, "The Five Heartbeats" (rated R for violence, profanity, sex and drug abuse), is entertaining, with a happy ending that is undeniably moving, despite the fact that you'll see it coming a mile away.