Judge Victor Valdivia formed a singing group with four other guys who are just like him. They're called "The Repellents."
When the two-part miniseries The Temptations aired on NBC in 1998, it was easy for people to immediately rush to embrace it. It tells the story of one of the most beloved and influential singing groups of all time, it's a lavish production (by TV standards, at least), and it has an appealing and talented cast. For all its virtues, however, The Temptations suffers from flaws too big to overlook.
Facts of the Case
In the early 1960s, Otis Williams (Charles Malik Whitfield, The Guardian) is an aspiring singer in Detroit. He joins forces with his high school classmate Melvin Franklin (D.B. Woodside, 24) and rival singers Eddie Kendricks (Terron Brooks, All About You) and Paul Williams (Christian Payton, U.S. Marshals) to form a singing group called the Temptations. They struggle for recognition, even after they're signed to Motown Records, until they recruit David Ruffin (Leon, Oz), a brilliantly talented singer and frontman who is also painfully self-destructive. Ruffin leads the Temptations into a string of number-one hit singles, but the group members discover just how challenging and difficult managing fame and fortune can be.
The Temptations is the kind of project that's easy to overrate. The music is, of course, stellar. Just hearing the first 30 seconds of "Ball of Confusion," "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," or "I Know I'm Losing You" will make you want to spend the rest of the night blasting Temptations music as loud as possible. The acting is generally solid. While Leon gets the breakout role and delivers his key scenes perfectly, the other actors also give good performances without any weak links. The production is clearly a lavish one, with plenty of crowd scenes and lavish production design that really does evoke the '60s and '70s. The Temptations actually scored an Emmy award for best direction, and director Allan Arkush (Rock 'n' Roll High School) definitely makes the most of the sets and costumes, showing them off vividly and elegantly.
Unfortunately, all the great music, good performances, and pretty visuals can't camouflage the miniseries' fundamental flaw: the teleplay is sloppy and disjointed. Based on Otis Williams' autobiography, The Temptations does indeed relate the major events in the group's history, but it does so clumsily and incoherently. It's not that this is a bad story; if anything, this rivals only Marvin Gaye as Motown's most epic tragedy. It's that the miniseries tells it so poorly that after it's over you'll have way more questions than answers. For a putative biopic, that's not a good thing.
Consider the way David Ruffin is handled. When we meet him, Ruffin is a shy, aspiring singer who hangs around the Motown offices eager for his big break. When he seizes the opportunity at a Motown staff party to sing with the Temptations, we see the exultation in his face as he finally finds his place. There's also another touching scene in which he and Otis Williams have a heart-to-heart about how grateful he is to be in the group that also fits in with what we've seen about him so far. Then, in the very next scene, he's a coked-out egomaniac who's eager to pick fights with the other members and blow off his responsibilities to the group. This comes from out of nowhere; there's an exchange earlier where he explains to the group how his childhood was wracked with poverty and violence that's apparently meant to explain his later behavior, but if this is an attempt at characterization, it's much too subtle and quiet to really register that way. For the second half of the miniseries, Ruffin alternates between spiraling downward into drug addiction and aggressively insisting that he's the real star of the Temptations. This characterization may have been an accurate depiction of what Ruffin's later years were like, but it has no resemblance at all to what we've seen of him in the first half. Had the miniseries included some scenes that alluded to Ruffin's demons, the transition wouldn't seem so abrupt. As it stands, you'll be so confused that you'll have a hard time really following his story.
The David Ruffin story highlights the central flaw with The Temptations: too often, the writers feel obligated to shoehorn things (especially scandalous and therefore TV-friendly ones) that actually happened in real life into the miniseries, but they do so with no actual context, resulting in a narrative that's awkward and episodic. Similarly to David Ruffin, Paul Williams spends most of the miniseries as a quiet supporting character, then suddenly assumes center stage, briefly, as a suicidal drunk. Again, there's no real evolution here; it just happens without explanation. This failing is also evident in a later scene where the original Temptations reform for an ill-fated reunion tour. At first everybody (even David Ruffin) is in top form and the tour seems to be hitting its stride. Then, suddenly, one of the group members receives news of a shocking personal tragedy and every other member, even ones that couldn't possibly know about it, falls apart. There's no logical way these events could be related, yet the way the miniseries jumbles them together, they appear to be dependent on each other. The worst example, though, is how much the miniseries bungles the ending. In one 5-minute stretch, three major characters are disposed of so incompetently that you'll be tempted to burst out laughing, no matter how solemnly the onscreen characters act. The events in these scenes are more or less accurately depicted (though even that's in dispute) but the way they're handled alternates between cruelly dismissive and ludicrously melodramatic. The miniseries has actually done a good job (even despite itself) of making us care about these characters, so for three of them to leave so ineptly just highlights what a botched opportunity The Temptations really is.
Technically, the disc is decent. The full-screen transfer looks good, with vivid colors and little grain or damage. The stereo mix is excellent, showing off the great music to full advantage but also allowing for good separation between dialogue and background noise. There are no extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When The Temptations is good, it's very good indeed. The scenes showing the group recording and performing their biggest hits are superbly written and acted, conveying just how hard the group worked and how much they cared about the one thing that brought them together-their music. In particular, the sequence in which the group struggles to put together what is arguably their most wrenching song, "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," is the miniseries' high point. Intercut with shots of the members in the studio are scenes of one former Temptation tragically living out the song's harrowing lyrics; it's a moment that demonstrates how good this miniseries could have been, had it remained this consistent and focused.
It's hard to recommend The Temptations to anyone who isn't already a fan of the group's music and has some familiarity with their story. Fans of the group will find various scenes fascinating, and they will be impressed with the generally high quality of the performances, but even they will be irritated by the shoddy storytelling. If you're not that familiar with the Temptations, you'd do better to track down their biggest hits and read about their story elsewhere (see Accomplices section). Don't be fooled by all the acclaim this miniseries got; all its high points (and there are some good ones) are simply not enough to salvage it.
Guilty of taking a great story and telling it poorly.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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