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TV Review

'Temptations' Never Finds Its Rhythm

October 31, 1998|RICHARD CROMELIN

Back in the mid-'60s, anybody could want to be John and Paul, or Dylan, or Mick and Keith. But those with a keen eye for cool wanted to be the Temptations.

The vocal group not only turned out one gospel-rooted soul music classic after another, but also had that incomparable stage choreography--a combination of military drill and pantomime, delivered with an attitude that was both tongue-in-cheek and arrogantly commanding.

But the gig might seem less appealing after you sit through "The Temptations," a four-hour movie airing in two parts, Sunday and Monday, on NBC. After a while, the job of Spinal Tap's drummer begins to look like a secure position.

Though Temptations hits such as "My Girl" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" are pop standards and the group is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the members have remained fairly anonymous as individuals, and the behind-the-scenes story has never become a big part of pop music lore.

That story has its share of personal demons and conflicts, and enough suicides, overdoses, illnesses and accidents to stock a season's worth of "Melrose Place."

But "The Temptations" writers and director Alan Arkush never locate its elements of grand tragedy and redemption. The members' power plays and infighting don't have weight--they blur together as petty squabbles rather than epic struggles.

Maybe the filmmakers had too much time on their hands. Having four hours available might have reduced the motivation to hone a project with dramatic shape and an expressive style.

"The Temptations" unfolds chronologically, and it's liveliest in its earliest scenes, when the sidewalks of Detroit crawled with aspiring vocal groups, and Motown Records turned out hits with the efficiency of a Ford assembly line. That vintage music also buoys much of the first half.

As the story moves into the late '60s and beyond, a slightly jarring, psychedelic-edged visual style replaces the initial realism, reflecting the increasing uneasiness and disorientation the group was experiencing.

Without a taut story line, the performers have more responsibility than they should. DB Woodside as bass singer Melvin Franklin exudes an appealing sweetness, but only the single-named Leon's David Ruffin has the charisma and complexity to command the screen and rise to the stature of tragic figure--so much so that he's out of sync with the rest of the cast.

* "The Temptations" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on NBC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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