It’s enigmatic that the 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 hobnobbing with the future King Edward VIII, the five-part Dancing premieres Saturday and continues through Nov. 23.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, soon 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 tour that’s unsuccessful until journalist Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode, “Brideshead Revisited”) gets them 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. 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. 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 don’t work in the least.
The script, by director Stephen Poliakoff ( The Lost Prince), who also directs, has its strengths, but every few minutes, the quality is undone by characters announcing things to advance the plot, as opposed to dramatizing events.
Need 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?
The miniseries 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.
Also on the plus side is the show’s 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. 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.