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When 'The Singing Detective' was first produced as a TV mini series in
1986, it had a cumulative running time of well over 400 minutes. In
this theatrical remake, the story has been pared down to no more than
106. I haven't seen the original - which enjoyed almost unprecedented
critical acclaim in its time - so I have no idea how much of its
quality has been lost in its currently truncated form. Hence, I will
only be talking about this expurgated version, which stars Robert
Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson, both in virtually unrecognizable roles. It
should be noted that the screenplay is credited to the late Dennis
Potter, the author of the original work, so we can assume that director
Keith Gordon simply cut and pasted - though a less charitable person
might say 'bowdlerized' - the much longer teleplay.
'The Singing Detective' tells the surrealistic tale of a writer of detective fictions who is suffering from a horrifically painful and disfiguring skin disease. As he lies in his hospital bed, his mind drifts back and forth between reality and fantasy, a hallucinatory condition brought on by fever and his own author's imagination. At times, Dan is acutely aware of his miserable situation in the here and now, with all its attendant physical and psychological agony. At other times he becomes lost in re-enactments of key scenes from his gumshoe fictions, memories of his miserable childhood, and elaborately staged song-and-dance numbers in which the characters lip-synch to musical standards from the '40's and '50's.
Because its style and subject matter are somewhat off-putting at first, 'The Singing Detective' takes a bit of getting used to, but eventually the themes and stylistic elements begin to come together and the film takes off. The irony is that, for all the razzle dazzle of its form and style, the film is at its most intriguing in its quieter, subtler moments when the embittered hospital patient is forced to confront the demons of his own tormented psyche. Dan Dark is a man who obviously prefers the world of fantasy to the cold harshness of an often excruciatingly painful reality. In addition to his debilitating disease, Dan is also haunted by a failed marriage and an often tragic childhood that he tries to 'correct' by entering the world of idealized fiction, one that he can manipulate and control. As the bombastic hospital psychologist figures out, Dan's illness is essentially psychosomatic in nature, one rooted in his inability to accept the realities of life in his own skin. In fact, Dan ultimately discovers that his disease is as much a product of his imagination as the scenarios and characters that make up his fiction. The illness becomes his way of not having to deal with his inner torments. Somewhat paradoxically, his writing becomes a form of therapy for him, helping him to deal with all that unresolved bitterness in his soul. The film is as much about psychological healing as it is about physical healing. Oddly enough, Dan's confrontations with his wife, psychologist and other hospital staff are actually far more interesting than what is happening in his rather puerile imagination. Still, towards the end of the film, when Dan starts to make some profound psychological breakthroughs, the fantasy scenes actually do begin to work and the complex structure pays off.
Downey does a fantastic job bringing Dan to life, conveying both the physical and emotional anguish the character is undergoing. Gibson has a great deal of fun playing the part of a paunchy, balding psychiatrist whose unorthodox methods wind up getting to the root of his belligerent patient's troubles. Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Adrian Brody, Katie Homes and Alfre Woodard among others all deliver top notch supporting performances. And special praise must surely go to the large makeup staff whose work here is nothing short of miraculous.
'The Singing Detective' will probably not satisfy die-hard fans of the original lengthy mini series. But for the rest of us who have seen no other version than this one, the film's audacious style and complex themes help the movie ride up and over its not inconsiderable flaws.
I picked this movie up because I read the story on the back cover and
found it interesting and because I like Downey. I was prepared to watch
something different (from most movies I watched this year) and in that
regard I was not disappointed. The movie was indeed different, the
story was interesting, acting was very good (in most cases) the
soundtrack was excellent....so why didn't I enjoy it?
When the movie finished I was left disappointed. I couldn't find any real flaws in any aspect of the film (direction was above average, acting was great, music was very good and appropriate) but still I did not feel like I have just watched a great movie. I did not hate it but I didn't like it either. More than a couple of times I was tempted to hit fast forward.
And after a while I realized what was the problem with this film. Every character (except Downey's character - and then only to some extend) is left undeveloped and every relationship in the film is also left undeveloped. Most parts of the story are left unfinished or are presented in so little detail that they become uninteresting or irrelevant. It almost feels as if the original duration of the film was 4 hours and they had to cut bits and pieces to make it shorter.
All in all, I feel this could have been a great movie, but something happened along the way and the result was an average film. Worth watching it once, if only for Downey and an out-of-character Gibson, but that's it.
P.S. Please excuse any spelling or grammar mistakes. I'm not used to writing in English.
Ten years ago Ang Lee made a terrific little movie. It had depth and
resonance. Eight years later, some hack remade the movie in English,
changing the Chinese family to a Mexican one. Using almost precisely
the same script, it turned into a horrible, horrible little film.
Now turn to this. The original "detective" was one of the best film projects in history. I have it on my list of films every living person should see. It is the only thing I have ever seen from TeeVee that is worth watching. Its construction is ineffable and deep: three realities, each of which co- creates the others.
Now shift to the mind of Mel Gibson, the fellow behind this project. He is incapable of understanding or even seeing depth, surely in projects like this. What he has done is take a story about stories and storytelling, about parallel interwoven realities, about the nature of creation, about the origin of invention in sex and pain...
... and replaced it with something that looks the same and has the same events, but which has all the nuance and life bleached out of it. Now, we have a completely understandable narrative about a man who imagines and remembers things. All is clear, all is simple.
This is the same man who at this same time was doing the same thing to a similarly rich and deep and inscrutable story, the one about Jesus.
This is a travesty, a pure travesty. I recommend the original, but not this.
Just as a side matter, the threads that tied the realities together in the original were the women. The redness of their hair mattered. A lot. There's a little tinkering here with red, not-red, but it is done clumsily, without intent.
Ted's Evaluation -- 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.
I saw this film as part of a process of educating myself about the
career of Robert Downey Jr after seeing his remarkable performance in
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and realising to my shame that I could recall
seeing him in Chaplin but not much else. I have been working my way
through his films and I am staggered at the range and depth of his
talent, even in mediocre films (and he has made a few). But one can
only agree with New Yorker critic Anthony Lane who wrote recently 'I'll
watch him in anything'.
I disagree vehemently with those who've compared this Singing Detective unfavourably with the earlier version. I saw the original on television here in Australia when it was first screened, and it was indeed a great piece of television (though I preferred Pennies from Heaven which launched the international career of Bob Hoskins and was given a bad Hollywood remake). It's important to remember that Dennis Potter himself wrote this script, specifically for a shorter film version, and was keen to see it made. The dissenters should rent the DVD and listen to director Keith Gordon's commentary if they are in any doubt that it is faithful to the spirit of Potter's intentions and his written word.
The casting of Downey is a stroke of genius. Because he is a younger and very attractive man, the gross disfigurement of his character with psoriasis is infinitely more poignant than when the part was played by Michael Gambon - even when the Dan Dark character is behaving like a total bastard. His performance is extraordinary: the sublety of his mood changes and facial reactions, and the pathos he draws out of this trapped character (without a hint of schmaltz) just leap off the screen (even more remarkable given that for some of the time he was wearing makeup that took hours to apply and initially caused a bad skin reaction;and that he was under threat of returning to jail on drugs charges, which is why the film had to be shot in LA rather than Chicago - he was not allowed to leave LA).
I guess Downey's messy private life is one of the reasons he's such an interesting and complex actor. One can only hope that other brave producers will take a punt give him the big meaty parts that his talent deserves.
Don't let the nay sayers dissuade you from seeing this film; it's great. Mel Gibson is (thankfully, for me) unrecognisable and the scenes between him and Downey are terrific. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent.
Hey, I liked it. There were good things: Gibson unrecognizable as the shrink, Downey at his best, whacky story, pastiches of film noir, mind mystique, Touches of Freud, Jung... but it's not perfect. Some confusions persist: Downey as the frustrated, nonintrospective, horny writer whose imagination has taken over his life is often whining. His round-heeled mother has few redeeming features, the shifts between real and irrealis is jerky..., and so on. It's easy to find fault with a complex tale and one in which there are so many loose ends and ravelings but what do you take away with you when it's all said and done? Reading through the comments here, I came across the usual "I didn't like this..." and "I didn't like that..." comments. OK. Not every one likes pistachio ice cream. I love to see, hear and consider other views because it makes me reexamine my own impressions. Of interest to me was the recurring theme of confusion in these commentaries. I shared much of that because of the less than smooth transitions in the switches to irreality and the flashbacks. In films where the observers are given admittance to the inside of the performer's head, must be a melange of images, themes and mini-scenes because, alas, that's the way the mind works. So, from an audience perspective, it works for some and won't for others because, alas again, that is the way OUR minds work. Sorry to wax so psychiatrically but films like this one, as imperfect as it is, can tell us a lot about ourselves.
I have neither read the novel nor seen the original mini-series. A
relative was enthralled with both, so seeing this listed on my cable
guide I decided to give it a shot. I knew only the basic premise - that
the film would be centered around a writer of pulp detective fiction
who fantasizes about the lives of his characters as a way to escape his
debilitating chronic skin disease. This was a good impression to enter
this movie with, though far from complete. The 'singing detective' is
the main character in Dan Dark's first novel, and an imaginary
alter-ego existing in a seedy film-noir world of pulp fiction, in which
Dark has encoded all of the traumas of his emotionally disturbing life.
Meanwhile, Dark himself lies in a hospital bed incapacitated by some
form of chronic leprosy and spreading a message of hate to everybody
who dares to try to help him. The film focuses - though rather
impressionistically - on Dan Dark's psychological journey during a
prolonged hospital stay.
Without the background most viewers of this film might approach it with, I can only view it as an outsider, judging it only on its own merits. There are a few major problems which immediately come to mind. First - The Singing Detective is slated as a comedy. While I suppose some people might see it as a dark comedy, I am afraid that I found none of it funny whatsoever. Obnoxious, mean-spirited verbal violence does not amuse me. Second - though I do not have the insider perspective needed to support this idea (I haven't even read any IMDb reviews of this film), I suspect that the film leaves a lot of the development of its basic theme - of healing - out. Paradoxically, this problem seems to develop because of the nearly exclusive focus on Downey's deeply disturbed and paranoid character Dark, and his hospital antics. Yes, he's a very difficult patient - we get that right away - but is it necessary to drive it home scene after scene after scene? Downey's Dark is a blend of Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman's Rainman, while his "Singing Detective" is a cold-fish hybrid of Humphrey Bogart, Bob Mitchum and all of the other noir detectives ever seen on the big screen. And he sings (this is a fact which is neither explained nor well-developed, but I am sure that the silly 1950s RnR tunes are the only venue for positive emotions the character allows himself). Downey's performances are, as usual, good, but they fail to sustain the entire film (which they are, unfortunately, asked to do). Mel Gibson, playing the hospital psychoanalyst, steals the show, despite his decidedly minor though important role. The rest - the pretty young nurse, the ambiguous wife, and the characters inhabiting Dark's fantasies and later his hallucinations are all well written and performed, but fail to compensate for the somewhat dull development of the central theme.
Good films based on unfamiliar literary works always make me want to read the original material (Master and Commander, The World According to Garp, and Bladerunner are some examples). When I see a good film based on a book I am familiar with (LOTR, Cider House Rules, Minority Report, The Shining, Solaris, for example) I approach it with a head full of expectations. With this film, I had only a palm full of expectations, and, though my review may sound negative, I was pleasantly surprised. The film dove unexpectedly deep, but in the end, came up a little empty-handed for me. Nor did I expect the film to be as breezily entertaining as it was. Balancing breezy entertainment and deep psychological drama (not to mention literary comedy and plenty of music) is a difficult task. Though The Singing Detective ultimately fails in this ambitious goal, it is still worth seeing, if nothing else, as an appetizer for the mini-series - which I will borrow from my relative post-haste.
The 1984 'Singing Detective' miniseries had Michael Gambon as a
misanthropic novelist confusing himself with his pulp-fiction noir
detective. Although no one could approach Gambon's startling portrayal,
no actor I see can match Robert Downey Jr.'s ability to bring back this
character with his own demons to recreate hallucinations and '50's
musicals in dreams lurid, colorful, and downright Freudian.
His debilitating skin and bone infection of extreme psoriasis have landed him in the hospital but provide him with the opportunity to dream about his choleric mother and tramp wife as well as place the hospital staff in cheesy '50's musicals.
In Keith Gordon's 'Singing Detective,' Downey brings his own life of addictions, which have truncated his career and left him dangerous to hire. He seems at home here as Dan Dark, emerging into the light of sanity by exorcizing his demons and dealing with the unreality of seductive nurse Katie Holmes attending to his skin and bone in reality and dream only as a writer could envision.
It's an offbeat film with style, similar to Woody Allen's lyrical 'Everyone Says I Love You' and Bjork's depressed 'Dancer in the Dark.' It's not quite as good as either but a charmer nonetheless.
The 2003 film version of THE SINGING DETECTIVE is by turns funny, scathing, and poignant, a woefully underrated look into a writer's psyche. If you don't have time to watch Dennis Potter's landmark TV miniseries (also available on home video), Potter's screenplay for this movie version (written 2 years before his untimely death) does a great job of condensing the story of novelist Dan Dark's (Robert Downey Jr.) battle with severe chronic psoriasis and personal demons. Throughout the movie, the bitter, suffering Dark weaves in and out of reality and delirious re-imaginings of the people and events in his life as they'd appear in the titular novel starring Dark's tough private eye alter ego. Actor-turned-director Keith Gordon stages this wild ride through Dark's mind with a style that owes as much to David Lynch and the Coen Brothers as it does to Potter. The British miniseries' lip-synched 1940s musical set pieces are retooled as American 1950s rock 'n' roll numbers -- call me a Philistine, but I think the updating works even better than the original (and believe me, I loved the original)! As a writer, I found THE SINGING DETECTIVE to be a fine example of how one's life and experiences creep into one's writing no matter what genre you write in. Each and every member of the stellar cast is letter-perfect, with particularly good, sharp chemistry between Downey and, respectively, Robin Wright Penn (I've always loved her name; it's especially appropriate for someone playing a writer's wife :-), and producer Mel Gibson (as Dark's seemingly goofy but astute and compassionate therapist, Gibson is all but unrecognizable in bald drag; Greg Cannom's F/X makeup serves both Gibson and Downey well). It's a shame THE SINGING DETECTIVE didn't do better with critics or at the box office, or Downey probably would've been a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. I could empathize with Downey as the bitter, clever, pain-racked (physically and emotionally) Dan Dark even when he wasn't acting particularly likable. The versatile Downey could be a Bogart for the Aughties if he could keep his own personal demons under control. I also enjoyed seeing our household fave Adrien Brody in a relatively lighthearted (for this film :-) role as one of a pair of Dark's fictional hoods with a bumbling streak. Jon Polito completes the pair; he and Brody are like an amoral Abbott & Costello. Their repartee cracked me up, especially their "Patti Page" exchange early in the film. Give this new SINGING DETECTIVE a try next time you're in the video store and in the mood for something different. If you rent the DVD and like it, watch it again with Keith Gordon's commentary track on; he has lots of intriguing and entertaining things to say about the making of the film, particularly about the cast and how he and his crew got those great surreal effects on a low budget.
In "The Singing Detective" there are moments of pure "Yes!" as Downey incredibly resurrects Humphrey Bogart. He did not 'do Bogart' as anyone and their brother can do, (mine usually works..), but it seemed instead he must actually have been doing what Bogart himself did: focusing on difficult issues, maintaining deep courage and principles, and finally acting richly with his whole being. I have seen nothing to compare with it since the original immortal performances. We are talking superbly transcendent character acting, (as when Downey did Chaplin). Oscars? Schmoskers! Downey deserves a Nobel Prize; and why not give such an honor? Is literature ever to be held in greater esteem than cinema? BTW... Mel Gibson did what I thought was his personal best job, and the rest of the cast's acting was crisp and gifted. If some felt that the plot was the weakest element, consider the plot in "Chicago". A good vehicle does what it must. I liked the whole thing, with all its vivid medical depictions, coarse direction, and unfiltered displays of human dysphoria.
I enjoyed nearly every moment in The Singing Detective. I immensely enjoyed the developed chacters and the creativity that was put into this great film. The Singing Detective is a dark comedy and chacter study, and throw in a couple musicals. The Singing Detective might not be for everyone, it is a strange and has an odd sense of humor.Although for me i thought the comedy was clever and the story and dialog were creative in every way. in conclusion, if dark comedies and some really good acting (Robert Downey Jr. never lets me down with his amazing performances and this movie, explains why he is so damn good), and pure creativity is your cup of tea then, i strongly suggest The Singing Detective.
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