Oct. 17--It's rather enigmatic that the new Starz miniseries "Dancing on the Edge" is so much less than the sum of its considerable parts. Those parts would include a compelling cast and exquisite period details in the melodramatic story of American black jazz musicians rubbing shoulders with British royalty in the 1930s and becoming embroiled in a grisly murder.
Inspired by Duke Ellington palling around with the future King Edward VIII, the five-part "Dancing" premieres Saturday and continues through Nov. 23.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, about to be seen in the film "Twelve Years a Slave," plays suave band leader Louis Lester, who has brought his band to England on a so-far-unsuccessful tour until music journalist Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode, "Brideshead Revisited") gets the band a gig at the posh Imperial Hotel.
The upper-class white audience is at first appalled as much by jazz as it is by the all-black orchestra, including singers Jessie (Angel Coulby, "Merlin") and Carla (Wunmi Mosaku, "Moses Jones"). But once Prince George (John Hopkins, "Alice in Wonderland") takes an interest in the band, its fortune is seemingly made.
Lester is all but adopted by a bunch of rich aristocrats, including Pamela Luscombe (Joanna Vanderham, "What Maisie Knew") and her self-indulgent younger brother, Julian (Tom Hughes, "Silk"), the widow Lady Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset, "The Deep") who lost all three sons in the first world war, and the dilettante Donaldson (Anthony Head, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). Wealthy American industrialist Walter Masterson (John Goodman, "The Artist") has taken Julian under his wing and is out to manipulate everyone else as well, including photographer Sarah (Janet Montgomery, "Black Swan"), who is growing close to Lester.
When one of the band members is attacked and later dies, Lester is certain he knows the killer. And so are we, which is one of the miniseries' many problems. A number of wrong turns are written into the script later on to mislead us, but they are all so unlikely and so "writerly," they don't work in the least.
The script, by director Stephen Poliakoff ("The Lost Prince"), who also directs, has its good parts, but every few minutes, the quality is undone by characters announcing things to advance the plot, as opposed to dramatizing events. Need to find a way to get Sarah out of a scene? Simple: Just have her announce that she has to meet her father at the train station. This, in the middle of a frenzied attempt to spirit Lester away from the cops, who believe he had something to do with the murder. And isn't Sarah supposed to be in love with the guy?
At another point, we need to get Donaldson out of his house quickly to join Julian and Masterson for dinner before they leave England. Because it would take time for Donaldson, standing in his doorway, to get his coat, Julian delivers a convenient weather report that it's warm enough to go without one as Donaldson is already climbing into the car. Cloudy with a chance of amateurish writing.
Poliakoff can't seem to make up his mind whether this is a melodrama or a murder mystery. We're supposed to hitch a ride on the mystery train through the labyrinth of the plot, but because the script never disabuses us of our certainty of the killer's identity, we're left only to care about the characters. To that end, "Dancing" is nearly saved by several outstanding performances, beginning with Ejiofor's Louis Lester. Even when the script pulls the rug out from under him by making Lester do something completely inconsistent with his character, Ejiofor sustains Lester's credibility.
Excellent performances are also delivered by Hughes, Bisset and Head. We're supposed to feel conflicted about Pamela, but as written, the conflicts make no sense and undermine Vanderham's work. Goodman is uncharacteristically phony and Montgomery again delivers one of her not-quite-present performances. Ironically, other than her brief stint as a New Jersey lawyer in the canceled TV show "Made in Jersey," Montgomery has been inconsistent in her TV work. She was similarly unimpressive in BBC's "Spies of Warsaw."
Music lacks authenticity
The script's good qualities include its exploration of racial attitudes in pre-World War II England. While many of Lester's supporters appear to be color-blind, we find out otherwise. Even Stanley at a point of exasperation with Lester blurts out that he's acting like "the clever Negro." The venerable BBC will not deign to broadcast "that kind of music" until Prince George gives the radio network a none-too-subtle royal nudge.
But in the end, those promising moments only make the miniseries more disappointing. It isn't helped at all by original music by Adrian Johnston, meant to evoke music from the 1930s. The melodies are vaguely acceptable, but the lyrics lack authenticity.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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