Blu-ray Review: The Singing Detective


Keith Gordon is one of my favorite directors because his movies delve into the emotional core of his heroes. He started out as an actor and is best known as Rodney Dangerfield’s son in Back to School. Starting in the late ’80s, he transitioned into the director’s chair with The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear, Mother Night and Waking the Dead. The Singing Detective gave him a respected story, a stellar cast and a superstar producer. It’s probably hard for today’s youth to understand, but there was a time when Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t able to star in movies. The man behind Iron Man had a severe troubled time that made insurance companies not want to cover any production that relied on Downey in a major role. They didn’t want to see the production delayed or canceled because Downey woke up in another strange bedroom or worse. Producer Mel Gibson (before his own troubled time) was willing to put up a large chunk for the insurance on Downey. He was repaid with leading man performance that could capture the comedy, the singing and the serious gunplay.

Dan Dark (Downey) is at a hospital being overwhelmed by a case of psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis that has made him immobile. His only escape is a Film Noir fantasy about two mobsters (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito) taking out people. The only person who has a chance at stopping them is the Singing Detective (also Downey). Of course they’re looking to snuff the detective. Dark writes mystery novels so this fantasy isn’t merely fan escapism. He’s doing serious work as he avoids feeling stuck in his hospital bed. He has quite a few comical moments in the hospital room with a nurse (Batman Begins‘ Katie Holmes) that must grease him up all over. He also has intense sessions with a shrink (Gibson). He gets extra paranoid when his ex-wife (Robin Wright) shows up and asks about a script. She fears he’s being set up by her. He flashes back to his troubled parents with a mom (Watchmen‘s Carla Gugino) that had bad luck with men. The film mixes the fictional noir, the flashbacks to youth, the struggles in the hospital and paranoid fantasies. Characters get unstuck and drift between the stories. It’s a dreamy atmosphere anchored by Dark’s pain.

The Singing Detective was originally a six episode mini-series on the BBC written by the legendary Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven). Normally Hollywood taking a critically acclaimed six hour work and reducing it down to two hours would lead to a rant about why can’t studio executives leave a masterpiece alone. This can easily be found with a mention of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This film is an exception to the indignity. Why? The cinematic script for The Singing Detective was written by Dennis Potter. This is his tighter vision that does work thanks to the charms of Downy and Keith Gordon’s ability to shuffle the tones masterfully.

Downey was able to use this film to prove he could straighten himself up enough to play troubled characters. Now he’s earned hundreds of millions as Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes thanks to a little low budget time as The Singing Detective.

The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The 1080p transfer brings out the various textures of the scenes. The Film Noir element is a tad grainy while the hospital scenes are brighter to reflect the comic tones. The audio is DTS-MA 2.0. The sound mix allows the various musical moments to fill the air.

No bonus features.

The Singing Detective allows Dennis Potter to condense down his mini-series for a movie audience with plenty of stars to dazzle the screen.

Olive Films presents The Singing Detective. Directed by: Keith Gordon. Screenplay by: Dennis Potter. Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Mel Gibson, Robin Wright and Katie Holmes. Rated: R. Running Time: 108 minutes. Released: August 25, 2015.

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