'Temptations' is hard to resist Preview: In the history department, this miniseries is a bit shaky. But when the music starts, holes in the plot melt into the background.

October 31, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It's got a nice beat, and you can dance to it.

That's the way the teen guests on "American Bandstand" used to review records, and maybe that's the way we should review made-for-TV miniseries like "The Temptations," airing for four hours tomorrow and Monday nights on NBC.

"The Temptations" is the Hollywood version of the story of the famed and troubled Motown singing group that scored its first hit in 1964. For 10 points, baby boomers, can you name the tune?

In the film, founder Otis Williams (Charles Malik Whitfield) describes the events leading up to the recording of the song on the night of Jan. 9, 1964: "We had been rehearsing that song Smoky wrote for us for almost two weeks, and we all liked it a lot. It was a cold, crisp night, and I remember looking up at the four of them and thinking: 'This is it. This is the night that's going to change everything.' "

Cut to a tight shot of a snare drum and the sound of a rhythm guitar playing those oh-so-familiar back-and-forth opening chords of "The Way You Do the Things You Do." Oh, baby, indeed. You got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle.

Maybe the screenwriting isn't so great -- "It was a cold, crisp night" -- and maybe the history is a little skewed in certain points to favor the living who can still sue for slander and those who still hold power, like Berry Gordy Jr. And maybe it's not exactly the "chords of mystic memory" that Abraham Lincoln once talked about. But NBC's "The Temptations" is full of songs that do touch a certain kind of generational memory and reconnect us to a time in America when some of us believed the walls of the great racial divide could be felled by the sounds coming from our transistor radios, the Motown sounds that so stirred our souls.

Watch "The Temptations" as you would a Broadway musical, letting the songs carry the moment when the writing or the acting fails, and you won't be disappointed. There is no shortage great and resonant songs, that's for sure. "The Way You Do the Things You Do" is followed by "My Girl," which is then followed by "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep" and "I'm Losing You." For the next three hours, as they say, the hits keep coming.

Part of the problem with the narrative is that there were simply too many Temptations -- 19 during the group's 37-year history -- to keep them all straight.

The story is told from the point of view of Williams, the only founding member still with the group. If you focus on the relationship between him and Melvin Franklin (DB Woodside), who died in 1995, you'll see that there is an overarching symmetry to the script and some sense of melancholy for all that was lost on the way to those gold records.

But the script really does have major problems that become all too apparent during the second night, when group members start dropping like flies to alcohol, drugs and suicide. A one-shot scene with David Ruffin's body being pushed out of a limousine in front of an emergency room seems so out-of-nowhere that you wonder if it wasn't added when someone in editing discovered )) they forgot to tie up Ruffin's story.

But when he's on-screen, the one Temptation viewers won't lose track of is Ruffin, thanks to an inspired performance by Leon as the coke-snorting, sweet soul singer with the oversized ego, horn- rimmed glasses and most sexually healing hips this side of Marvin Gaye. The problem is, no other actor is within shouting distance of Leon's performance.

As for the historical accuracy:

In 1977, I wrote a story about Eddie Kendricks, who was with the group from 1961 to '71. I found him in a welfare line wearing only a skimpy denim jacket on Christmas Eve, a day when the temperature was below zero and the wind chill off Lake Ontario could bring you to your knees. Kendricks told me he wound up broke and addicted after all those hits and that attorneys, agents and the record company took most of his money.

Almost none of it is in this NBC version of events. While the miniseries does visit the dark side of the Temptations, like most docudramas, it lays no blame on the rich and powerful who are still alive. Easier to fudge on culpability or blame those who lie a-moldering in their graves.

Maybe I'm looking for sunshine on a cloudy day or, when it's cold outside, the month of May in expecting historical accuracy from a sweeps miniseries. Like I said, there's a lot to enjoy in "The Temptations." All you have to do is shut down your brain and go with the music.

'The Temptations'

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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