NBC’s teens-to-the-grave chronicle of Motown’s greatest male hitmakers is so loaded with ace performances that this warmly photographed portrait could hang nicely on a wall of gold records. Told from Otis Williams’ position as the band’s emotional and practical foundation, “The Temptations” sensibly sticks to that p.o.v. and paints each individual as talented yet troubled; as bands formed in the 1960s go, the Temptations were a group seriously short on drama, save for the expected vices of the era, but long on dedication and loyalty.
That loyalty aspect and making records, more than the comings and goings of a group that has lasted through 54 albums, 38 years and four deaths, are the lifeblood of these four hours: What Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson and Otis Williams have brought together, they tell us, let no man put asunder.
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Yet for all its linear strength and abundance of great hits, telepic lacks any probing of Williams’ psyche or what made the group click. This is Williams’ story as he sees himself, and his sturdiness, dedication and decisiveness find their only match in the form of Temptations manager Shelly Berger (portrayed by Alan Rosenberg, of “L.A. Law” and “Cybill”), the miniseries’ other co-producer.
On one level it cuts down on the sensationalism that could have been mined from the lives of the other singers: David Ruffin (drug abuse); Melvin Franklin (arthritis); Eddie Kendricks (solo rise and fall, lung cancer); and Paul Williams (alcoholism, suicide). Director Allan Arkush frames every square inch of this 40-year story with documentarian care, and while there’s little emotional involvement, the breaches and reunions hold water. Once a Temptation, always a Temptation.
The story, strict in its adherence to musical facts, rolls chronologically, starting in 1958 on Detroit street corners where high school boys harmonize as a way to meet girls. Having seen Earl “Speedo” Williams and the Cadillacs, Otis Williams (Charles Malik Whitfield) opts for the look of a singing sensation — i.e., slick processed hair — and it splits the home: His mother, Haze (Tina Lifford), supports the singing, but stepdad Edgar (Harold Surratt) sees the Ford plant as Otis’ future.
As the various harmony groups split and swap members, Williams forms the Siberians with Franklin (DB Woodside) and Al Bryant (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), and after a chance meeting with producer-manager-hustler Johnnie Mae Matthews (Vanessa Bell Calloway), they record as Otis Williams and the Distants. Their single “Come On” builds some Motor City steam.
Ensuing gigs find them sharing a bill with the Primes, featuring Kendricks (Terron Brooks) and Paul Williams (Christian Payton), and the Primettes, which will later become the Supremes. Gordy (Obba Babatunde, in an underutilized role) , who manages the Primes and shows an interest in the Distants, is left with no acts when both disband; Williams, Williams, Bryant, Franklin and Kendricks show up at Motown billing themselves as the Elgins.
Gordy begs for a name change and starts grooming the Temptations; a New Year’s Eve fracas in 1963 leads to the immediate dismissal of Bryant and the hiring of David Ruffin (“Waiting to Exhale’s” Leon, in a dead-on perf).
From there the story is a familiar one, showing the quintet hitting the road with the Motortown Revue of their label mates; Smokey Robinson (Erik Michael Tristan) and Norman Whitfield (Mel Jackson) penning and producing “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”; Ruffin’s growing cocaine dependency; and Gordy’s push to cross over the Temps to white America.
Part two opens with Dennis Edwards (Charles Ley) replacing Ruffin. Jarringly, Arkush gets way too arty distilling images of the recording of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and Paul Williams’ downward spiral that leads to suicide. And the downhill slide continues — members leave, Motown drops the act — until a reunion tour patches things up a bit. By the time they are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they are at odds in the audience, together onstage.
Pic’s ending is a real disappointment — essentially a musicvideo, when an epilogue is desperately needed. The group’s story is told without context; beyond changes in fashion and home decorating styles, there’s no sense of the times that surrounded them or even how distinct a musical catalogue they created. Even on a commercial level, might it be noted that Otis and the Temps released their 39th studio disc, “Phoenix Rising,” in August?
Private lives are played peripherally, wives are given the roles of goaders, mothers are saintlike and Otis Williams’ son Lamont (Stevland Parks) is an emotional stabilizer. Writers Kevin Arkadie and Robert P. Johnson generally don’t flesh out the female roles, and they do load up on some oppressive dialogue.
The acting throughout, however, more than makes up for script flaws. Beyond the spectacular turn from Leon, who breathes life into what could have been a one-dimensional Ruffin, Whitfield stands his ground as Otis Williams, Woodside is a timid yet trusting Franklin, and Brooks finds a series of layers within the Kendricks character. Rosenberg is a steady cheerleader as their manager.
Technically, the pic is a real treat.