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<I>Singing Detective</I> Erotically Experimental

25 Jan, 2004 By: Dan Bennett

The film The Singing Detective -- different from the popular BBC TV series of the same name and based on original author Dennis Potter's own bizarre script -- is what might be called an experimental offering, and one that is erotically charged.

“That's the nature of Dennis Potter,” director Keith Gordon said. “He spent a career polarizing people. Just about everything he did divided critics and audiences.”

The Singing Detective streets March 23 (prebook DVD Feb. 10, VHS March 1) from Paramount Home Entertainment (DVD $29.99, VHS rental).

The piece is primarily a psychological thriller, bizarre and freewheeling, containing several erotic sequences, some of which straddle the line between real and imaginary.

Gordon said he reminded himself of potential DVD elements during the shooting, and he offers a commentary on the DVD release.

Although the original miniseries “The Singing Detective” has become a fan favorite since its airing in the '80s, it wasn't always that way.

“When it first aired in England, there was a very harsh critical response,” Gordon said. “It only became popular over the 20 years that followed. Potter prided himself on that. Some people are going to get it, others will hate it and be confused.”

The Singing Detective stars Robert Downey Jr. as Dan Dark, the author of the pulp novel The Singing Detective (in Potter's reimagined version). Dark is stuck in a hospital bed with a painful skin and bone disease. While taking painkillers, he wavers between imagination and reality, hallucinating that he is starring in a film version of his novel as a tough investigator who also sings in a band. The character is pained by childhood memories that somehow make it into the script, which exists only in Dark's mind.

“Potter's script is definitely not what many people who know the series were expecting,” Gordon said. “He intended it as a rethinking. It's slightly revolutionary for an author to rework something in such a dramatically different way. It's commonplace with composers, and you see it in visual arts, but it's almost as if a novelist rewrote a book with similar characters and plot, but has characters step outside the action and experience it in a completely different way.”

The script for The Singing Detective made the rounds for years, before and after Potter's death in the mid-'90s, and at various times was considered as a big-budget film with big-name stars and director. The experimental nature of the piece prohibited that, though. The project was eventually adopted by Mel Gibson, who put Gordon in charge. A nearly unrecognizable Gibson plays Dark's psychiatrist in the film. Gordon, who directed the small but critically admired films A Midnight Clear and 'Night Mother, pursued The Singing Detective from the start.

“I waited impatiently,” he said. “I never knew when and if the piece would become available. I also knew it really couldn't be made as a big movie. That's what happened with Potter's Pennies From Heaven, and it was hated and trashed, but is thought very well of now.”

Along with the project came Gordon's old friend Downey, with whom he acted in the comedy Back to School several years ago. Downey is also an old friend of Gibson's, and Gibson considered Downey a good choice for the lead role.

“We had 12 weeks to get it going, not very much time,” Gordon said. “Luckily, Robert [Downey Jr.] doesn't like to rehearse, because there was no time. It was a big thing for him, coming out of prison to make his first movie in three years. He has an intelligence that comes from his gut. He has these instincts that are just incredible. We all had to rely on our instincts.”

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