Based as it is on coproducer Otis Williams’ 1988 autobiography, you shouldn’t tune in to the four-hour, two-part TV movie The Temptations expecting much more than a rags-to-riches melodrama. It’s one man’s version (Williams, as portrayed by Charles Malik Whitfield, narrates the tale in voice-over) of a soul group that went through more than a dozen personnel changes, and it underplays the crucial importance of such songwriter-producers as Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland.
But The Temptations still exerts a strong pull. After all, there’s that vast array of hits — from ”The Way You Do the Things You Do” to ”Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” — from the Motown act that had as wide a range of musical style and emotional depth as any of the greatest soul performers. (The songs are heard mostly in their original recorded versions.) Director Allan Arkush, who proved he knows how to make a raucous pop-music movie 19 years ago with the Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, keeps the camera at waist level and up close to capture the underlying drama and artistic exertion of songwriting, rehearsing, and performing. Arkush can take as simple a scene as the group gathered around a piano with Smokey Robinson (Erik Christian) working out the harmonies on what would be a major hit, ”My Girl,” and turn it into a spine-tingling moment of pop-culture creativity.
The actors are at their finest while performing the hits. Leon (Oz, Waiting to Exhale) is particularly adept at capturing David Ruffin’s rattlesnake-in-horn-rims persona, while DB Woodside (Murder One) gives the most expression to the frequently stiff dialogue. The entire ensemble does a remarkable job of reproducing the classic Motown dance moves on stage. What The Temptations lacks in biographical verisimilitude it makes up for with a dramatization of the emotional and intellectual rigor that goes into the creation of great music. B+