DANCING ON THE EDGE Review: Starz’s Jazz Drama Is Pleasantly Lulling

     October 19, 2013

dancing on the edge chiwetel ejiofor slice

Starz, like PBS and BBC America, has had some success in second-runs from or co-productions with the British.  But are we getting a delicious second brewing, or leftovers?  Dancing on the Edge (which originally aired last winter on BBC2) is, in many ways, both the perfect British export, and the perfect mix of English and American-ness.  It feels a great deal like an Agatha Christie novel — wealth! garden parties! intrigue! murder! — but also incorporates the very American element of jazz.

The miniseries covers the rise and quick unravelling of the fictional Louis Lester Band from 1932 to 1933.  They’re a hidden gem of a group, lead by their highly educated and charming band leader Louie (Chiwetel Ejiofer), and a pair of alluring chanteuses, Jessie (Angel Coulby) and Clara (Wunmi Musaku).  Their introduction and integration into London society is helped along by an ambitious and cocky music writer, Stanley (Matthew Goode), who arguably also helps usher their downfall.  Hit the jump for more.

dancing on the edge chiwetel ejiofor matthew goodeStarz has billed Dancing on the Edge as a jazz tribute / murder mystery, and that becomes completely true if you add the word “then” to it.  The first few hours (there are a total of 5 episodes totaling 6 hours) are a loving portrait of jazz of that era (more or less, as the Guardian pointed out).  Fans of the time period will get lost in the sumptuous sets and costuming, while those waiting for the murder plots may begin to grow restless.  Eventually though, the miniseries does give itself over to intrigue almost exclusively, but drags the (fairly obvious) outcome out for its remaining episodes.

That’s not to say that Dancing on the Edge doesn’t have its charms.  Like the similarly meditative Boardwalk Empire on HBO, the show is sometimes best experienced like a warm bath, letting its period details and immersion into its world coddle you into a dreamy bliss.  But charm doesn’t equal drama, and the while the miniseries simmers along throughout its run, it never reaches a boiling point, even in its most explosive scenes.  Those outbursts, given the timbre of the rest of the series, become more of a nuisance than a dramatic crescendo.  Let’s all calm down and have some tea, shall we?

dancing-on-the-edge-Jacqueline-BissetWhat Dancing on the Edge is really about, though, is a hotel.  The Louis Lester Band manages to get a recurring gig at the Imperial Hotel thanks to the pushy nature of their manager, Wesley (Ariyon Bakare), and also a place to stay there — tucked away, of course.  The hotel mirrors the rise and fall of the band: the band at first galvanizes the stuff and outdated vibe there, then becomes the hotel’s darlings.  But after the sensationalism of the murder, the hotel’s long-term residents begin to flee, its owners decide to sell, and it starts to fall into ruin.  Dancing also incorporates the overshadowing issue of race during an era where racial tensions were extremely high.  In early episodes the idea is very heavy-handed, but as the show matures the racism becomes more insidious, more sinister, and even more disappointing when it comes from those who Louis and the band befriended and had begun to trust.

The hotel serves as the central location for the main cast (which includes a number of great actors like John Goodman as an American billionaire, Jacqueline Bisset as an unexpected jazz enthusiast, and Anthony Head, Joanna Vanderham and Tom Hughes as members of the aristocracy) to meet, greet, break up, and come and go.  Characters who started the series as rough sketches of English manor types end up, for the most part, subverting their character expectations to great success.  As they develop, though, acclaimed British dramatist Stephen Poliakoff‘s screenplay takes extended breaks to show the band and their patrons on unique escapes — a secret train picnic, a glittering New Year’s Eve party, a garden party that includes a royal or two.  These interludes are beautiful and dreamy, but those without the patience for them will likely not want to stick around long enough to figure out what, if anything, they mean.

dancing on the edge john goodmanRace and class, and the mingling of the two, keep the plot moving even more so than the murder, but the most engaging thing about Dancing is its intimate portrait of this group of friends who meet and then, eventually, break apart over the course of the year.  Race and class are largely involved in both, but the miniseries makes this a personal story even though it has, at one point, national implications.  The number of characters allowed into this intimate gathering is small indeed — even most of the Louis Lester band is left out (they’re there, they just never speak or distinguish themselves) — but it helps make viewers not only care about how things play out among them, but probably makes a lot of us want to be a part of their world.

A little bit of an uplifting epilogue (which is incredibly rushed given how slow everything else in the miniseries plays out) keeps Dancing from being too melancholy after the fall.  Ultimately, viewers are left with a tale that might not leave too much of a lasting impression, but was, like those garden parties or picnics on train, a pleasing respite.

Dancing on the Edge premieres Saturday, October 19th at 10 p.m. on Starz.

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