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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Singing Detective
The Singing Detective
Paramount // R // March 23, 2004
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted March 20, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

As a would-be film critic – and believe you me, I stress the "would-be" label big time – I find it strangely alluring when I encounter a film that leaves me as equivocal as The Singing Detective. Not so much that I found the film to be middling or that it left me indifferent, but rather because The Singing Detective is so frustratingly brilliant and gloriously meandering. It is as bipolar as Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket but less delineated in narrative: instead of a tonal paradigm shift halfway through the film, the film's stronger elements are skillfully intertwined with its pointless wanderings throughout its running time. All at once you find yourself astonished and indifferent. Frustrating? Absolutely… but not without its rewards.

The Singing Detective is best known as a 1986 British television miniseries, starring Michael Gambon as a novelist suffering from a psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling and debilitating skin and bone disease. To escape from both his physical and emotional agony, he retreats into a fantasy world based on his own novel (also entitled "The Singing Detective"), in which he assumes the title role of a hard-boiled detective, culling people and events from his childhood and formulating a world replete with secret agents and criminals. His Orpheus-like descent into this dream world forms the basis of his healing, in which his physical ailment represents only a fraction of his illness.

Or so they say: I confess to never having seen the original miniseries. So when I approached director Keith Gordon's 2003 remake of the same name, I brought along no baggage or preconceptions about the material. In this film, Robert Downey Jr. takes on the title role as Dan Dark, the novelist turned psoriasis patient. When we first encounter Dark, it is shockingly abrupt: a quick-cut edit from darkness and shadows to a bright, antiseptic hospital corridor, with a tight close-up on Dark's rotted, scabbed, lesion-riddled face. We soon discover that Dark is a contemptuous and irritable man: self-loathing, bitter, and unwilling to proceed with his own healing. He escapes from his agonizing existence into a dream world that evokes classic 1940s/1950s film noir movies: shadows at every corner, double-crosses from anyone and everyone, crackerjack dialog that nobody in the real world would ever have the lightning wit and cleverness to speak, and dangerous dames with world-shattering secrets. Dark assumes the title role from his novel, a sharp private dick with a penchant for singing classic doo-wop and rock tunes from the era.

Dark brings characters and situations that scarred his emotional development from childhood into his fantasy existence: his estranged wife, his two-timing mother, and even obscure bit players that paid him passing remarks on a bus. Even the ravishing Nurse Mills (played by the always stunning and eminently watchable Katie Holmes), who applies healing cream all over Dark's tortured body in the real world, is pulled into a fantasy sequence set to the tune of Mr. Sandman (salacious Internet types will no doubt grab sound bites from this sequence and post them all over Usenet.) As the film progresses, its focus delves less into Dark's physical healing as it does his emotional healing, coming to grips with both the pain he suffered as a child and his insistence on using it as reason enough for his own anger and aggression.

I enjoyed so much of The Singing Detective that it made the slower, more pointless sections that much more painful. Downey, whose much-publicized travails with drugs and incarceration cannot help but add a certain layer of poignancy to the role, is so impressive and authoritative as Dan Dark that he continues to cement himself as one of the more talented actors of his generation. His anger and bitterness is palpable, sorrowful, and believable. When he retreats into his fantasy world iteration of Dan Dark, Downey paints a slick veneer of artificiality over his performance that skillfully parallels the hyperreal, backlot universe of his imagination. Fine performances are also delivered by Saul Rubinek, Alfre Woodard, Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, the aforementioned Katie Holmes, Carla Gugino, and, playing the most entertaining and colorful characters of the film, Adrian Brody and the great Jon Polito. Even Mel Gibson, whose Icon Productions produced the film, does an excellent turn as Dr. Gibbon, Dan's therapist.

My main problem with The Singing Detective is that it at all times seems both abrupt and overlong. There are scenes that seem to be padded and non-essential, and others that rush the story along in a haphazard, somewhat unfocused manner. The constant speeding-up and slowing-down of the film runs havoc with its pacing and flow, making The Singing Detective appear disjointed and uneven. But these flaws are countered and, for the most part, outnumbered by some truly inspired sequences, which are so engaging and entertaining that, in the end, The Singing Detective works more often than it doesn't. It's a maddening, frustrating film, but ultimately a worthwhile one.  



The Singing Detective is featured in its original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing elation. There are some flaws to the presentation, but the overall quality of the video is pleasant and satisfactory. Colors are stable and well rendered, but the shifting nature of the narrative presents us with two separate realities: the "Dream" world and the "Real" world. The Real world is subdued, muted, moderately contrasted, and mostly somewhat drab. The Dream world comes alive with deeper blacks, stronger contrasts, more vibrant colors, and a generally more appealing picture. In both worlds, the image suffers from some softness and a definite lack of fine image detail. Edge-enhancement, shimmering, and aliasing are also visible at times throughout the picture. These are few and far in between, but they do occur. I also noticed some occasions of debris and wear on the print; however, due to the nature of the film and its hearkening of earlier films and projection styles, I believe these are intentional. Overall, the picture is good to very-good, but the apparent flaws can't help but tone down the video rating.


The audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. The six-channel soundtrack is mostly subtle and subdued during the Real world sequences, and comes a bit more alive in the Dream world. My main concern is in the presentation of the dialog; so much of Robert Downey Jr.'s performance is muttered or sputtered through gritted teeth that I found myself turning up the volume or activating the subtitles many times throughout the picture. This doesn't hold true for other characters, so while I believe his muted performance is intentional it makes for a somewhat frustrating experience. The soundstage opens up considerably during the musical numbers, in which the mix demonstrates fine clarity and dynamic range. While the front stage is demonstrably spacious, surround activity and LFE are minimal (only really coming to life during the musical numbers), resulting in a soundtrack that, while lacking aggressiveness and bombast, is suitable and appropriate for the film.


The only extra of note is a feature-length audio commentary by director Keith Gordon, and – simply put – this is a great commentary track. Gordon is enthusiastic and informative from the get-go, and rarely lets up throughout the commentary. He provides a wealth of in-depth detail relating to pretty much every aspect of his film, giving both screen-specific information and anecdotal production history. For anyone interested in The Singing Detective, Gordon's commentary track is well worth your time.

Also included are previews for other DVD titles in the Paramount Classics line, including Northfork, And Now Ladies & Gentlemen, and a bizarre-looking MTV adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

Final Thoughts

Despite my apparent problems about The Singing Detective, I am still going to recommend it to DVD fans. Its brilliant elements so outweigh its many flaws that, while definitely not for mainstream audiences, fans of more thought-provoking and textured film fare will most likely garner a deeper appreciation of the work. The presentation is solid and mostly appealing, and Gordon's wonderful commentary track will deeper your appreciation of the film. The Singing Detective is an unusual and frustrating piece of work, but it is, for the most part, and intriguing and engaging one.
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