If you can pull The Singing Detective out from under the long shadow cast by the acclaimed 1986 British miniseries, Keith Gordon's 109-minute film version achieves its own distinction. It was a daring (and some might say f... more »oolhardy) assignment to film Dennis Potter's screenplay, written out of Potter's desire to see his semi-autobiographical drama in feature-length form, but Gordon rose to the occasion with a superlative cast led by Robert Downey, intense as ever as Potter's on-screen alter ego. Bedridden with an excruciating case of skin-rotting psoriasis, pulp novelist Dan Dark (Downey) escapes into his vivid imagination, where gunmen and gumshoes pursue their pulpy agenda, casting himself as the titular "warbler" whose pain and anger is focused like a laser on his cheating wife (Robin Wright Penn) and anyone else who's made his real and imaginary worlds unbearable. Coproducer Mel Gibson appears under heavy makeup as Dark's condescending psychiatrist, and supporting roles are played with stylish flair by Adrien Brody, Katie Holmes, Jeremy Northam, Carla Gugino, and others. While many critics called this a noble failure, The Singing Detective captures the essence of Potter's story, offering a welcome alternative to the acknowledged superiority of the miniseries. --Jeff Shannon« less
"The original BBC television series THE SINGING DETECTIVE, written by Dennis Potter, is by any standard one of the milestones of television. It was a weird but spectacularly successful blend of hospital drama, film noir, psychological thriller, and surreal musical that managed to strike the right balance between its disparate elements to create something utterly unique and magical. Michael Gambon was perfect in the lead, and he was complemented by a first rate cast, including Bill Patterson and Joanna Whalley.Now we have a very odd thing indeed: a film version of a television series, complete with an all star cast of such performers as Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson (all but unrecognizable behind a balding head of light brown hair and thick glasses), Adrien Brody, Robin Penn Wright, Alfre Woodard, Carla Gugino (of SPY KIDS fame), Jon Polito, Katie Holmes, and Jeremy Northam. Despite a spirited, capable performance by Downey (talent intact after his incarceration) in the main role (Dan Dark, as opposed to the Philip Marlowe of the television series), the film simply isn't very successful. I had such high expectations for this one! So, why does this movie fail? Primarily, two reasons. First, the original series was 450 minutes long, while the movie is only 109. In other words, the series had ample time to introduce the viewer to its strange, nightmarish, surreal world, while the movie, because of time limitations, simply plunges the viewer directly into the heart of things. For anyone who has seen the series, it will seem as if the movie is constantly in a rush, and as if it is always leaving things out. The movie comes across as far less varied and rich. The other problem is that for the most part the movie lacks the energy and vitality of the series, almost as if there is less of a sense of what it is that they are trying to achieve. One watching the series will recognize that without the deft touch exerted by Potter on the script, the show could easily degenerate into something odd and unpleasant. This is precisely what happens in the movie. One would imagine that with an all-star cast and a larger budget, the movie would at least be a far more attractive and visually compelling affair. I actually prefered the hospital wards of the series. The cast should have been an improvement, but I found nearly all the performers apart from Downey to be wasted in their roles. About the only thing that I found better in the film was Downey's makeup. The main character is suffering from an especially nasty case of psoriatic arthritis, and Downey does indeed look quite afflicted. However, psoriatic arthritis is far more treatable today than it was during the time when the television series was set (one of my best friends suffers from it, and tells me about the medications that she uses in fighting the condition), so it didn't make as much medical sense now as it did almost twenty years ago. My greatest fear about this film is that it will skew people's assumptions about the original series. It is truly an unworthy successor, and I would urge everyone to see the original series, which is available on DVD. Those who like the movie will love the original even more, and even those who hate the movie will love it."
Seen on its own merits . . .
Ronald Scheer | Los Angeles | 05/20/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Few if any reviewers here indicate having watched Keith Gordon's director's commentary on this DVD. I think it would alter some of their judgements. As Gordon explains, the film script was in fact written by Dennis Potter, whose original "Singing Detective" ran as a much longer miniseries on British TV 20 years ago, and the changes to an American setting with 1950s American pop music were really Potter's own ideas. If the transition to feature film format loses something in the translation, it is in part due to his reconceptualization of his original creation.
As the commentary reveals, much of the inventiveness in this new version is not apparent in a single viewing. While it may seem to truncate and over-simplify the lengthier TV version, there is still complexity and ambiguity enough to entertain and engage a thoughtful viewer appreciative of good screenwriting and wonderful performances. Robert Downey's dual role as the embittered writer and the Bogart-style detective of the title reveal the mercurial range of this amazing actor, and his scenes with Robin Wright Penn, who plays his wife, are a brilliant portrayal of two people equally matched in their struggle to preserve a relationship and, at the same time, the integrity of themselves as individuals.
Strong cast. Interesting contrast of visual styles. Rated R for a wide range of disturbingly graphic and lurid visual imagery, including the main character's horrific skin condition. Granted, this "Singing Detective" is no substitute for the original, but seen on its own merits, it still stands up well on its own."
Mark Twain | 08/13/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The Singing Detective is a frantic, high energy and very weird cinematic experience. Dennis Potter wrote the screenplay for the film in 1992, two years before his death, based on his own 1986 BBC miniseries of the same name. Potter, who suffered from the same skin disease as our main character, very much wanted a feature film version of his miniseries, which may or may not closely resemble his own life. The script kicked around Hollywood for nearly a decade before director Keith Gordon, star Robert Downey Jr., and producer Mel Gibson became attached. The result is a fine example of entertainment - an eclectic mix of drama, film noir, and comedy, with plenty of fantasy musical numbers thrown in for good measure.
Robert Downey Jr. gives a truly amazing performance as Dan Dark, a pulp fiction author who is flat on his back in a hospital, suffering from a debilitating skin condition. If anything, his mind is in worse shape than his body. As he slowly recovers, he imagines scenes from his first novel, The Singing Detective, with himself as the lead character. His ex-wife, Nicola (a beautiful Robin Wright Penn), visits him at the hospital and plays a key part in his frantic imagination. He also has dreams and visions of his childhood, where he sees his mother (Carla Gugino) have an affair with his father's partner, Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam). His psychotherapist, Dr. Gibbon (an almost unrecognizable Mel Gibson), believes that things he experienced as a child have led to his sudden outbursts of violent temper. It is Gibbon's job to heal Dan's mind in tandem with his recovering body. Katie Holmes, as a nurse caring for Dan, Adrien Brody, and Jon Polito, as a pair of hoods, round out the excellent cast.
The Singing Detective is definitely different from any film to come out in recent years. It has a bizarre David Lynch like quality and a refreshing weirdness. The script is jumbled and moves frantically from one thing to another, but its gorgeous style, energetic performances, and fantastic musical numbers keep it entertaining. I wish it were a bit longer so I could understand the story a little better, but seeing this has made me desperate to seek out the original miniseries, which I have yet to see. The pacing can sometimes become tedious, and the concept of the film can be challenging for those unfamiliar with the source material, but ultimately "The Singing Detective" is a visual delight and an acting tour-de-force. It is one of the most unique films I have seen in years and I'm sure glad I saw it. Not recommended for everyone, but worth a try.
A Lively Nightmare
Cilly | 09/02/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This movie didn't seem to get very good reviews. After seeing it myself, I'm frankly kinda stumped. It's malevolent and weird, but it certainly isn't dull; it's nightmarish and surreal, but not to the point that you can't tell what's going on. Plus, the acting is great and the concept disturbing. As unpleasant as parts of it were, I'm going to watch it again. Part of the problem is, this movie is a remake of a much better TV series. The TV series ran 7 1/2 hours, and this movie has *somehow* been cut down to 2. Okay. You can guess what happened. In an attempt to trim off fat, they whittled the plot down to an incomplete skeleton. But it all still makes sense, and I enjoyed doing my own job of guessing and reconstruction. I think the other problem is that people see the title, and expect a fun, flashy crime story. This movie is not what you'd call "fun", unless you love a good Lynch or Cronenberg marathon. Also, if you want to ogle Robert Downey Jr.--and that's a good and admirable pastime, I applaud it--this movie will bother you. He spends most of it looking like he's in the last stages of radiation poisoning. His dreamworld alter-ego is handsome enough, but rendered as a flat-voiced, shiny-eyed Invasion Of The Body Snatchers doppelganger. I had to remind myself that it was only an actor in makeup; the illness portrayed here is horribly hopeless and seems very real. (Which is too bad. Here Downey is, ferociously good, filled with rage and scorching the paint off the walls, and I'm duckeng the effects as fast as I can.) Yeah, Downey is great in this; he goes from a sick, vicious, venomous [...] in the first half to a slightly-less sick, more charming, more frightening head case in the second half. More frightening, as he becomes less insane? Absolutely. In the first half of the movie, you know what he will do--he's going to break every bone in your body, if he could just beat the pain enough to lever himself out of bed. In the second half, he is a gentler lunatic, still lashing out, but also experiencing moments of dotty clarity; he is picking up pieces of his own broken mind and saying "Oooh. Look at that." Watching the expressions flicker across Downey's face is amazing. There is a moment when his wife says something to him, something innocent which still brings up a flare of insanity. You see a blaze of fear and paranoia, an "Uh oh, what am I doing?" moment, then a forced calm as he reminds himself that he shouldn't follow that impulse. Anyway, enough. I highly recommend this movie if you like good acting, if you like being disturbed, if you want so0me Twilight Zone to chew on. It is much more unnerving than some horror films I've seen, and the ending is happy in a horrifying way. Go ahead, it's great, you just have to like this sort of thing and be in the mood for it. Watch it on Halloween, I dare you.
Defining a Unique Style of Film
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 03/31/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"THE SINGING DETECTIVE is a brave new world for cinema. Adroitly written, directed by Keith Gordon, and 'performed' by a wonderful ensemble of actors, this is not a 'film noir', not a musical in the vein of "Moulin Rouge" of Baz Luhrman, not a flashback to 'golden oldies': this film is a randy combination of all these elements and more. It is a thriller/spoof/comedy/tender statement about man's isolation and dependency on illusion to explain the past, and just plain bizarre but thoroughly entertaining stuff! The cast is headed by a bravura performance by Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role - a hospitalized man who deals with his childhood and life by creating a fictional movie in which he is embedded as a detective. Also superb are Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Alfre Woodard, Mel Gibson, and Adrien Brody among other more minor roles. The staged 'musical numbers' are lip-synched favorites by the main actors and are sensational in the way they weave into the story line. You must be in an adventuresome mood to enjoy this movie, but give it a chance and it will mesmerize you."