Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sunday Corner: Lee Liberman goes DANCING ON THE EDGE with Stephen Poliakoff

Writer-creators Stephen Poliakoff and Julian Fellowes were attracted to the same hot topic when they wrote screenplays about the rise of jazz between the great wars, shining light on glittery elites whose following attracted the public through their patronage of black artists. The Cotton Club was all the rage in NYC while the royals juiced the trend on the British side of the pond, helping to make jazz musici-ans celebrities of the 1920s & 30s.

Fellowes' version of the jazz trend had cousin Rose flinging with black bandleader Jack Ross in Downton Abbey while Poliakoff uses his entire vehicle DANCING ON THE EDGE to throw fuel on the subject of race, class, sex, and jazz for 6 episodes in which poverty, hunger, and immigration issues lurk around the edges. Little by little tensions grow in our story as the elite pursue their latest hobby, trouble stalks band members, and German diplomats in town are already revealing their racist hearts in public

Chiwetel Ejiofor (above, l) leads a terrific cast as black band leader Louis Lester, along with charming Matthew Goode (above, r ), playing irrepressible rogue Stanley Mitchell, music impresario and editor of a rag called "The Music Express". Stanley, most at home in his paper's lair, is thought by some reviewers to have dubious motives, but I found his enthusiasm contagious as he recognizes the band's potential and organizes one gambit after another to promote and protect them. Stanley makes bits of mischief for Louis but always has his back -- the band has one foot in the world of high society but also uncomfortable exposure to police and/or the alien immigration authorities.

Louis's saga as an up-and-comer begins when Stanley hears a snippet of the band at a grungy dive club and knows they are something special. He has a commission in his pocket to recommend a new band to the Imperial, a once fashionable palace that is now dowager country (above, the stand-in for the Imperial). He organizes a booking for the instrumentalists and singers, Jessie and Carla (Angel Coulby and Wunmi Mosaku, third and fourth from left in photo below). Gradually the band grows an audience including a small group of influentials whom we get to know well (plus Prince George and Edward, Prince of Wales, the "playboy" princes who were serious patrons of Duke Ellington and Florence Mills, among others).

There's Walter Masterson (above, second from l) an American money bags with extreme sexual proclivities and hazardous morals (John Goodman), Lavinia Cremone (a splendid Jacqueline Bisset, 5th from r), an aristocrat who still mourns three sons lost in World War I but is newly aroused to do good in the world; Mr. Donaldson (Anthony Head, 4th from r ), an urbane fellow and silent manipulator; Pamela Luscombe (Joanna Vanderham -- Denice in The Paradise, 6th from r) and her high-strung, troubled brother Julian (Tom Hughes, far l) are rebellious offspring of rich, racist social climbers ("We are going to have a party for mummy and fill the house with blacks and Jews" says Pamela); photographer Sarah, daughter of a Russian emigre with a mysterious past, who has an affair with Louis, (Janet Montgomery, on Ejiofor's arm, left center).

In episode 3, a band member is stabbed and later dies. Our society patrons come into focus as evidence appears against Louis that will make his conviction likely of a murder he didn't commit. Who is genuine and who is not figures here as some deliberately aim to implicate Louis, some look the other way, and others take personal risks to help him escape. Lady Cremone (Bisset, below) swings one way and then the other. A hotel manager complains: "You brought the roof down on all of us, Stanley -- you brought the band here." Masterson's response is to throw money around (as above, with singers Jessie and Carla).

The murder plot is resolved by the end of the fifth episode but Poliakoff (pictured below) adds a sixth episode in the form of Stanley's interview with Louis, an unsatisfying discussion of questions we never had and anecdotes we didn't need. The addition of this episode speaks to a lack of discipline, as though Poliakoff, shown below -- who both wrote and directed the series -- had some thought streams he couldn't shoehorn into the body and added this vehicle to include them. It lumbered.

The original score glitters but is not as titillating as the raw, edgy music of the early jazz era. But despite its flaws, Dancing's story-in-chief and the ensemble of players are very engaging and leave us wanting more. We get that the subject of race is topic A, crossing social red-lines topic B, and both will remain ever thus. But rather than this being a message movie, particularly, 'Dancing' offers good company, entertainment, hypocrisy revealed with wit, and a window on the lively era that roared into the 30's, oblivious to the rise of The Third Reich.  A BBC2 production, Dancing on the Edge  first appeared over here on Starz and is now streaming via Netflix.

(The above post was written by 
our correspondent Lee Liberman.)

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