You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Chiwetel Ejiofor As a 1930’s Jazz Musician in the New Miniseries ‘Dancing on the Edge’

Chiwetel Ejiofor As a 1930's Jazz Musician in the New Miniseries 'Dancing on the Edge'

There are many reasons 12
Years a Slave
is so eloquent and powerful, from Steve McQueen’s fluid
direction to John Ridley’s first-rate screenplay and the cast of actors
unafraid to play some of the worst and
most heroic elements of character — but at its heart, the film rests on Chiwetel
Ejiofor’s  performance as a free man
turned slave, whose strength, outrage and resilience never begs for the
audience’s easy sympathy. Anyone who has followed his career knows that
performance is no fluke. In earlier films, he has often been the very good center
holding a mediocre work in place (Kinky Boots,
Dirty Pretty Things

There is more of his versatility on screen this weekend.
Tonight, Starz begins a five-part miniseries, Dancing on the Edge, with Ejiofor as a British jazz musician whose group
becomes famous in the racist 1930’s, even though he and his band can’t enter
the front door of the hotel where they play — at least not until the Prince of
Wales becomes a fan. Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff (known for tony but staid television dramas like The Lost Prince),
Dancing on the Edge is a vibrant, stylish but by-the-numbers period piece. Especially if you’re a fan of that genre, though, it
has enough terrific music (written for the series by Adrian Johnston), intrigue
and drama to be worth watching.

The career of Ejiofor’s character, Louis Lester, is loosely based on Duke Ellington’s,
and the story is at its most penetrating in those rare moments when it
acknowledges that white audiences appreciating black musicians was often its own kind
of racist condescension. That social edge isn’t truly what concerns
Poliakoff, though, as the film keeps focused on the melodrama that frames it, the aristocrats who pop in and out, and eventually a crime plot that overtakes everything else.  

The story begins with the famous Lester in some kind of unexplained
trouble as he arrives at the office of his friend, a jazz journalist named Stanley
Mitchell (Matthew Goode). In flashback we see how Stanley helped promote the
band, bringing them to the attention of wealthy middle-aged benefactors played
by Anthony Head and Jacqueline Bisset, as well as a group of  beautiful young things, played by Joanna
Vanderham, Tom Hughes and Janet Montgomery.  John Goodman, as a belligerent American
millionaire, may be the most stereotypical of this caricatured bunch. All
well-played, but more than a bit trite. When Prince George and the Prince of
Wales turn up, early in the series, you might as well stop hoping for anything deeper
and settle back to enjoy the series for the froth it is.

We know that something terrible has to happen because of
that opening scene — and also because  these
entitled rich people are exactly the kind dragged into miniseries to make
trouble. The two women who sing in the Louis Lester Band are wonderfully played,
though. The star, Jessie (Angel Coulby) has a simmering ambition, and her best
friend, Carla (Wunmi Mosaku) has to wait for her chance to shine. And Ejiofor
brings his usual intelligence to Lester, who is fierce, clever, charismatic and
sexy, and always perfectly aware of how the social odds are stacked against

If you want to see Ejiofor in the kind of amazing role he
deserves, of course there is 12 Years a
. But Dancing on the Edge is
engaging enough — and offers more evidence that his options as an actor should
be limitless. 

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,