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Singing in the Brain

Director Keith Gordon had an interesting answer when asked to identify the genre of his new Paramount Classics film, The Singing Detective. "Let's see," he said. "It's a comedy, a drama, a surrealistic lip-sync rock-and-roll musical, an exercise in expressionism, an absurdist film-noir, and a naturalistic character study. You can't really leave any of those out in adequately describing the movie. It's the genre of experimenting with genres."

Fans of the late writer Dennis Potter, best-known for his acclaimed trilogy of BBC/PBS miniseries (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective, Lipstick on My Collar) might recognize the idiosyncratic style that Gordon describes. The publicists at Paramount will have their work cut out for them in communicating what this film has to offer to those unfamiliar with Potter's unique dramatic universe.

Gordon, whose credits include Back to School, Christine, and Dressed To Kill, spoke with BSW by phone from New York, where he was promoting the film. He's an affable and upbeat gentleman with an obvious sense of enthusiasm for his work. His experience behind the camera dates back to Static, a film he produced and wrote in 1985. His first directing gig was The Chocolate War, in 1988. "In realistic terms," he noted, "you could say I've made a career shift. I still enjoy acting very much. Occasionally people will ask me to do a scene in their movie or a reading of their play. I tried for a while to do both and found there simply wasn't enough time or energy to put together independent films while chasing auditions. The door to acting isn't closed for me; I'm just not chasing it down right now."

Gordon said his journey in landing this directing job took 9 or 10 years, as the film went from creative team to creative team and studio to studio. "I first read the script in about 1993, and thought it was brilliant," he said. "Potter wrote the screen adaptation of his own miniseries. I was a longtime fan of his. Since the early 1980s, I thought he was one of the bravest writers of the second half of the 20th century. I loved the script but never could seem to get in the door during the various deals when they were planning to make a $70 million movie out of it. I'd call my agents, and they'd say, Oh, now, Barry Levinson's doing it with Jack Nicholson or Paul Mazursky's doing it with Dustin Hoffman. I never really gave up hope, and then Mel Gibson bought the rights two years ago and was smart enough to know that the way to get the thing made was to drop a zero off the budget and do it more as an independent feature.

"He then went to his friend Robert Downey and offered him the lead role," Gordon continued. "Robert had been in jail and hadn't done a movie in a couple of years, and Mel was smart enough to know that it would be a really good role for him and help him make a comeback, so Robert signed on, and they started looking for directors. Robert and I had acted together many years ago and hit it off. They had heard of my interest in it, as well as my experience in making films with tight budgets. So it seemed like a good fit, and they offered it to me. It was this weird experience of chasing something for years and then having it suddenly fall into your lap."

Gibson financed The Singing Detective, so things went smoothly once the cast and director were in place. He plays an eccentric psychiatrist treating the main character, Don Dark (Downey), a hack detective-story writer suffering from psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease of the skin and bones. Dark is in the hospital following a severe outbreak, trying to figure out who he is and what brought him to a terrible state of confusion. While lying in the hospital bed under heavy medication, he imagines a new screenplay that's set in 1950s L.A., in which he's a cynical private detective as well as a band singer. In his fantasy a prostitute is murdered, and he's drawn into an intriguing film-noir melodrama. Fiction and reality blur in surrealism, as the delirious Dark remembers his troubled childhood and imagines evil characters all around him.

In Potter fashion, the dark story is periodically interrupted by the characters bursting into 1950s rock-and-roll songs, lip-syncing to the original recordings. Hospital personnel and characters in Dark's imagination all participate in the musical interludes. Movie fans will recall this unique stylization from the 1981 Steve Martin film adaptation of Pennies From Heaven, set in the 1930s Depression and using songs from that period. Potter never liked that adaptation of his work, which he felt focused too much on lavish production numbers, taking them too far from their ironic intentions. He wanted to ensure the film of Detective was closer to his vision, but he died in 1994, leaving his screenplay behind.

Gordon is determined to honor Potter's vision and text, saying the changes he made were minimal. "The biggest change was moving the story from Chicago to L.A. for various production reasons," said Gordon. "We couldn't afford to shoot it there. There was so little that was specific to Chicago that it didn't make a big difference. Now the hoods run toward the desert in the end, not toward a cornfield, which I like because it becomes a sort of Waiting for Godot reference. Potter wanted to include the song "Blueberry Hill," but we couldn't make a deal on the rights, so we used a different one for that slot. The funny thing is that Potter had written in lines about a President George Bush and Baghdad that still apply today. There's some kind of irony in that we've come full circle."

In rethinking a seven-and-a-half-hour miniseries to make a 109-minute movie, Potter tried to keep its essence but at the same time turn it into a somewhat different animal—something more visceral. "In some ways, it's very similar—the basic story and even the beats," said Gordon. "A one-paragraph synopsis of the film would sound almost identical, though many details are different. The original had many more subplots. This version is leaner and more focused. It's more about Dark's emotional arc. The TV show was more a portrait of this man and what he was going though, and the film is more about what's going on inside his head. There's somewhat of a tonal difference. The original was a little bleaker. As Potter got toward the end of his life, he softened as a human being and talked about finding more meaning in his marriage and the world around him. He had more hope. The character of Dark was essentially him. He also had psoriasis and was a writer. I think in a way the screenplay was a way of revisiting his own life and giving it more chance for redemption and retribution. It was almost 15 years between the writing of the two versions."

Now to the hard part: selling it. It's going out on a platform-type release schedule, opening this week in L.A. and New York, then gradually expanding. Even following the success of Moulin Rouge and Chicago, will audiences accept the bizarre convention of characters suddenly breaking into rock songs and the overall surrealistic style? " With material this challenging, you always know you'll get a range of reactions," Gordon opined. "The fun of this is that people will get all sorts of different things from it. They have to appreciate its sense of playfulness. I try not to worry too much that everyone has to love it. I hope it finds the audiences that will embrace it. Those who recognize that the songs are used to comment on pop culture will respond to it—what our pop culture tells us versus the realities of life." Gordon also pointed out that although Hollywood avoided musicals like the plague for years, an audience groomed on MTV and lip-syncing might be more open to musicals of all types. "I think there was more openness to this genre than Hollywood realized for a long time, " he indicated. "People in the industry jump on one bandwagon, then abandon it when a few films in the same genre don't work so well, then jump on again following another hit. You couldn't make sports movies for years, until Rocky came along. At any given time, there are these lists of rules. Somebody breaks one, and then the rules change. Sometimes there's a hunger in audiences for something different. We're hoping The Singing Detective will satisfy that appetite." BSW

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