Keith Gordon’s “The Singing Detective”; Haunting and Brilliant Bursts of Imagination
by Patrick Z. McGavin
Alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Decalogue,” writer Dennis Potter’s extraordinary eight-hour 1986 BBC work, “The Singing Detective,” superbly directed by Jon Amiel, extended the formal possibilities of television. Built on themes of duration and process, layering sharp tonal contrasts and frenzied bursts of imagination, it transformed the act of watching television into an avant-garde experience.
Like Herbert Ross’ 1981 “Pennies From Heaven,” Keith Gordon’s new translation of Potter’s masterpiece is an ambitious attempt to compress the movements, feelings, and formal ambition of the longer work into the narrative and commercial demands of a two-hour movie. The new script was one of the final works Potter created before his 1994 death from complications of pancreatic cancer. Keith Gordon is a skilled filmmaker who has made compelling, accomplished adaptations of novels by Kurt Vonnegut and Scott Spencer. The feeling persists that he has attempted the impossible. His new version is a haunting, brilliant failure, a work whose most beautiful moments achieves verve and grace rare in the independent American cinema. Unfortunately, much of the material feels flat and compromised, and Gordon never satisfies the primary question of why this film had to be made.
Gordon appeared as the young Roy Scheider in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz,” and Fosse is clearly one of the significant influences on this adaptation (lead dancer Sandahl Bergman returns here in a hospital number clearly inspired by the sensational “Take Off” sequence from the Fosse film). Potter’s story is entrancing. A morose, misanthropic writer, Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.), trapped in a hospital, devises an elaborate fantasy existence as a debonair ’50s crooner and private detective. Gordon accentuates Potter’s most daring stylistic invention of characters, breaking into pop songs of the period.
Beautifully shot by Gordon’s regular collaborator Tom Richmond, the film opens in velvet darkness with a quietly unsettling moment with two underworld thugs (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito) killing a prostitute. A work of jarring transitions and shock cuts, Gordon quickly shifts to a close up of Dark being wheeled down a corridor, his lacerated skin leaving him disfigured and literally grotesque. Watched over by a gaggle of doctors, hospital administrators and a beautiful nurse (Katie Holmes), Dark refuses traditional treatment, bitter about his condition, his social contempt and disgust of women formed by bitter memories of his unfaithful mother (Carla Gugino). Dark’s anger and horrifying misogyny emerges in his counseling sessions with a crafty therapist (Mel Gibson, the producer and financer). Furthermore, Dark imagines his estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn, very impressive) conspiring to sell the rights to a screenplay he wrote of his novel, “The Singing Detective.”
The original work deployed radical shifts in tone and elaboration of feeling and movement to create a fascinating rhythm. Dominated by Michael Gambon’s extraordinary performance, the original was a fever dream. This version has some spectacular moments of imagination, though they never build and create a singular momentum. In the most entrancing Brechtian act, during a doctors’ conference, the walls literally separate, opening up the proscenium and are fluidly transformed into a breathtaking version of “At the Hop.” The musical numbers are grounded in the work of not only Fosse but his own inspiration, Federico Fellini. The dark, claustrophobic, restricted numbers built on feelings of humiliation and regret find a sharp corollary in the bitter recesses of its protagonist’s mind. Nonetheless, the movie’s portrait of women as sexual betrayers, manipulators, and careerists is uniformly ugly.
As expected, what does survive in the new version feels truncated. Unfortunately, Potter feels more bound to audience satisfaction, and the need for closure nullifies the experimental stylization that is its greatest triumph. In order for this version to work, it needed to be completely break free of linear storytelling and narrative cohesion. The too literal, dull contemporary sections nullify the beauty and grandeur of the original conception. Gordon’s “Singing Detective” wants to float in a recognizable space, though from the beginning, this was a work wholly unto itself. It should have remained that way.