TEMPTATIONS' STORY HAS A POWERFUL BEAT
By Mike Pearson
Entertainment Editor, Denver Rocky Mountain News
Special to Black Flix
Editor's note: The Temptations was originally broadcast over two nights as a four-hour mini-series.
Television has a way of embracing extremes, especially in its films. Too often they're either stock parables or exercises in jeopardy: a lot of weeping, a lot of hugging, a killing or two.
Which makes The Temptations, NBC's four-hour biography of the legendary Motown group something of a rarity. You've got crying, hugging, even death. But mostly you've got a warts-and-all tale about the price of success, the pain behind the glory.
The film opens in 1958, when Detroit teens Otis Williams (Charles Malik Whitfield) and Melvin Franklin (DB Woodside) team up to form a variety of musical groups. Nothing clicks until they hook up with two other local vocalists, Eddie Kendricks (Terron Brooks) and Paul Williams (Christian Payton). Their goal is to get a contract with Berry Gordy's Motown, a dream that comes true soon enough yet is tempered by a lack of success. No matter how many songs they record, they can' t get a hit.
Not, that is, until free spirit David Ruffin (Leon) joins the group, a masterful singer whose rich voice masks a mountain of inner hurt (His mother gave him to a pimp as a child to pay off a debt.) His recklessness is kept in check early on, and soon the hits begin to flow: Get Ready, Ain't Too Proud To Beg, My Girl, The Way You Do the Things You Do.
It takes 2 1/2 years for The Temptations to crack the Top 40. Over the next decade they log 16 No. 1 hits. Yet even as its sales stock rises, Motown's leading male group begins coming apart at the seams. Ruffin's ego spirals out of control as he gets deeper into cocaine. Alcoholism creeps up on Paul. And Eddie - whose smooth falsetto defined the Motown sound on Just My Imagination - flees the group after the purging of David and Paul.
Only Otis and Melvin remain of the original quintet. The group is bigger than any one person, they tell themselves. Yet as record sales diminish and the revamped Temps perform before ever-smaller crowds, they, too, feel the wall of regret closing in.
There's plenty of fodder, both emotional and musical, to fill this four-hour biography, and much of the time director Allan Arkush keeps us riveted with a brisk tempo and telling insight into the creative process.
Part 1 is the stronger of the two because Arkush gives us time to get to know these characters. We share their youthful joy at being signed, their frustration at faltering out of the gate, their euphoria at finally conquering the charts. There's something infectious about their triumph.
Tribulation is another matter, and it dominates the darker second night. Everything that can go wrong does: injuries, internal strife, suicide. At one point there are two groups of Temptations touring the country, each boasting two original members. Eventually, Motown orchestrates a combined reunion tour, the consequences of which are unforeseen.
At its best, The Temptations makes the innocence and exuberance of the '60s palpable, a time when any old group with a dream had a shot at stardom. The inner workings of Motown are given rather short shrift (more than a few artists subsequently sued Gordy for royalties), and the difficulties of black groups trying to cross over to white audiences is alluded to only in passing.
Even when Part 2 gives way to a veil of sadness, two larger strengths remain: great acting and greater music. Whitfield shines as the group' s founder, Otis Williams, a man's whose drive often blinds him to the pain of others. And Leon proves a decisive counterweight. His Ruffin is moody, chaotic, brilliant. When the two opposites clash, tension radiates from the screen.
Yet it's the music that ultimately makes this telefilm sing. For all its rags-to-riches drama, The Temptations is at its best when the group is onstage, executing smooth moves and harmonies. An hour after the film's run its course, chances are, you'll have I Wish It Would Rain in the CD player.
Why not? As this compelling drama proves, some songs are simply timeless.
Mike Pearson is the Entertainment Editor of the Denver Rocky Mountain News and writes a weekly video column. TEMPTATIONS' STORY HAS A POWERFUL BEAT, reprinted with permission from the Denver Rocky Mountain News, originally appeared 11-01-1998 in the Denver Rocky Mountain News.
Copyright © 1998, Denver Publishing Co.