I must confess that part of my motivator in publishing this review is just to make public the fact that I dutifully sat through all six parts of Stephen Poliakoff’s drama and want some sort of credit for that. After all, as it turned out I could have watched the first episode, the last episode and just been filled in on a couple of facts from the middle and I would have got just as much out of it.
The first episode showed off the beautiful locations and detailed period design. It introduces us to the charismatic and smart band leader Louis Lester, the mercurial and ambitious music journalist Stanley Mitchell (both expertly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Matthew Goode respectively) and the group of socialites and influencers they become surrounded by. It gives an interesting insight into the world in the 1930s where things like race and class are far more important to some people than others. It’s not a civil rights piece per-se, it just sets everything within that context. Those involved seemingly more interested in taunting and poking fun at the other side than bludgeoning points home with tedious speeches.
Jumping forward a few hours, the final episode augments that design and those issues by putting an actual plot in. A murder mystery and a daring escape give the characters something to do, and keep the audience (or me at least) paying attention and trying to work out the zigs and zags. Somewhere between the first and final episodes the supporting characters develop from being indistinguishable witterers into outlandish stereotypes, overplaying every emotion and telegraphing their thoughts. After so many hours of painstaking lack of action, this sudden extremeness was actually something of a relief.
All that plot and character development could have been condensed into just a couple of episodes, but instead we got a few hours of meandering plot cul-de-sacs. The band’s manager is dispatched of so quickly that I presumed he was going to be brought back as a twist later on, as it turned out he was just utterly irrelevant. Likewise the lingering shots of creepy looking people in crowds and mystery around Jessie’s family turned out to be nothing at all either. Red herrings are one thing, but these just felt as if they’d been abandoned.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all however was the way that the music and band weren’t a major part of the story at all. I was actually rather surprised when the murder mystery was introduced, as I’d thought the show was going to be entirely about the music and how it fitted in (or didn’t) with everything around it – the venues, the patrons, even the early days of music journalism and fans. But that got swept away, I’m not sure the final episode even had a performance in it. Beyond Louis himself and the two singers I don’t think anyone else in the band even got a name or a line of dialogue, leaving them as glorified extras awkwardly following the leads around and randomly playing in corridors.
While this could have been a really nice three part series, it was instead a shabby six part one which completely wasted some interesting ideas, beautiful designs and talented actors.