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Review: Starz’s ‘Dancing on the Edge’ hums along to a jazz beat

The period piece takes its sweet time in exploring the seductive stories behind the Jazz Age in England.

October 19, 2013|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
John Goodman stars in Starz’s “Dancing on the Edge.” (Starz )

There is something nicely unexpected about “Dancing on the Edge,” writer-director Stephen Poliakoff’s seductive drama of jazz and England in the early 1930s.

The series, which begins Saturday on Starz (it has already aired on the BBC), forms a kind of “Upstairs/Backstage” story with a mystery attached and comes in five parts, plus an epilogue — appendix might be the better word — in the form of interviews.

To be sure, jazz has often lurked at the background of British period pieces — Lord Peter Wimsey dragged to some Soho cellar, Bertie Wooster knocking out a chorus of “Minnie the Moocher.” The next season of “Downton Abbey” will feature a black American singer (Gary Carr) based on the historical Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, who cut a swath through British high society in the 1920s and ’30s.

A writer with a long list of fairly high-toned stage plays, film scripts and TV to his credit, Poliakoff was inspired in part by reading of the friendship of Duke Ellington with members of British royalty. In place of Ellington, he gives us Louis Lester (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a rare black British bandleader whose career starts to get traction when he crosses paths with hustling music journalist Stanley Mitchell (Matthew Goode), who is his entree as well to a world of upper-crust jazz fans.

At the suggestion of one (Anthony Head), they acquire a singer — two, in fact (Angel Coulby and Wunmi Mosaku). And things change.

Poliakoff takes his time, with long scenes in which people spend a little time coming to a point. The pace is mostly languorous, despite the jazz theme, and even when the going gets going, steps are only slightly quickened.

Where he falls short, oddly, is the music. The many original songs, all written by Adrian Johnston, sound less like lost classics than not-quite-successful pastiche. Hackneyed lyrics like, “Shout it loud/Head up proud / This girl’s going far/Blow, Joe, blow / Let ’em know / I’m gonna be a star” may comment profitably on the action, but they are not Cole Porter or Billy Strayhorn. The music is also — on purpose, it transpires, for effect — too modern for the era, both in arrangement and performance; not everyone will find that jarring, of course, or know the difference.

But Poliakoff is in any case less interested in jazz as music or culture than as a destabilizing, reorganizing force. Notwithstanding a few dropped names, he is scant on context and on the details whose mention and sharing are a natural and important part of that world, for musicians and fans alike. And despite the band’s stated rise, there are few scenes that express any palpable connection between players and crowd — or even muster a crowd. But perhaps that’s just how it was with the British.

His true business is elsewhere, with the love stories, a murder mystery, the collision of race and class, past and future, of bright hopes and dark desires. He uses the music to gather into close, sometimes very close, quarters a cast of characters whose diverse backgrounds might otherwise keep them apart. Indeed, they tend to go about in a pack as if joined at the hip, and to the exclusion of anyone else.

Rounding out this crowd are John Goodman as an American moneybags who keeps a little gold around (and on display) in case of another crash; a lovely Jacqueline Bisset as a semi-reclusive great lady, compensating for a personal loss by looking into new music; Janet Montgomery as a photographer who clicks with Lester; and Tom Hughes and Joanna Vanderham as one of those neurasthenic brother-sister dyads who promise seven kinds of trouble. The great Allan Corduner plays Stanley’s boss, Jenna-Louise Coleman his underappreciated assistant.

The faults are noticeable, really, only because so much else feels right. The film is beautifully shot and apportioned. Its engine hums, in low gear, mostly, but reliably. You are drawn in and along, just as the characters are drawn along, by music or money or sex or love, the taste of something better, hotter, cooler, more rewarding, more alive.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

her-movie-poster

Her, directed and produced by Spike Jonze, centers on a man who develops a relationship with a female voice produced by an intelligent computer operating system. It’s kind of an interesting love story. One of the reasons I’d like to watch this movie is of course Joaquin Phoenix plus Spike Jonze. In Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after the end of a long relationship, he becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson), a bright, female voice, who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other. 

I’d like to share a recent critic from The Guardian. | Tom Shone

Needless to say, the film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses. The whole thing looks like the most expensive ad for urban anomie ever made – Antonioni for the artisanal-cheese set – and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot. Theo’s workplace is a website called BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he sits in office composing personal notes for those who can’t be bothered – “Who knew you could rhyme so many words with ‘Penelope’?” says a co-worker, admiringly of his work – while a neighbour, played by a curly haired Amy Adams, designs video games in which mums pick up “Mom points” for feeding the kids or beating the other mothers to the carpool, or else face the ignominious charge “You’ve Failed Your Children!”

The closer we draw to the central romance, the straighter grows the film’s face. “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel,” confides Theo to Samantha, finding in her precisely the sympathetic ear he failed to find in his wife. She is played by Rooney Mara, thus confirming Mara’s position as the ex most men would regret breaking up with, ideally through a happier times montage involving cascades of hair and white sheets seen in chalky sunlight. She gets in the zingiest line in the film, delivered over an exchange of divorce papers – “He couldn’t deal with me, tried to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his laptop” – but it doesn’t quite land. It’s like a zinger from one of Woody Allen’s comedies that has somehow drifted into one of his alienation-and-anomie numbers. The script wants things both ways – an obvious outrage to Mara, Phoenix’s love for his computer is seen as entirely normal by others – a penchant for blur that starts with the film’s wispy compositions and seems to spread from there.

Phoenix is as sweet and soulful as we always suspected he might be. Ditching the trail of dysfunction and hiding his scarred lip behind a neat little moustache, spectacles and high-hitched pants, Theo is a portrait of the sad sack as saintly urban eunuch – a great listener and perfect empath whose less attractive attributes are discretely masked from view. An early mention of Theo’s anger issues is never followed up on. A session of phone sex leaves him the bemused victim. Even his consummation with Samantha is discretely blacked out, to spare us the lonely, masturbatory truth. That’s quite a burden of simplicity to put on a figure who must carry a two-hour film; you can detect the strain during some of the date scenes, where Phoenix is required to gurgle with happiness one too many times – he wears the fixed grin of a man on a visit to the dentist.

Her – Official Trailer