Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr) is a writer of detective novels who finds his fictional life and his real life intertwining when he's hospitalised with a crippling skin disease. In his dream life he's the hero of his first novel, "The Singing Detective", playing a nightclub performer turned gumshoe who is trying to discover the story behind the recently murdered young woman abandoned in a the city's river. In his real life, he tries to sort out his paranoia and hallucinations brought on by his treatment, all the while letting his frustrations eat him up inside, almost as corrosively as the condition maims his body.
The trend for bringing television programmes to the big screen continued unabated with this adaptation of the classic Dennis Potter serial, scripted by Potter himself. The television version took six episodes to spin its yarn, innovatively moving backwards and forwards in time and in and out of reality to build up its profile of the hangups and background of the main character, but the film version only has an hour and three quarters, meaning the psychological aspect has less space to be investigated. As much as detective story as to how Dark has arrived in his current mental state as it is the book's mystery, the flashbacks are too perfunctory to be of much help in this incarnation.
The book is more personal than Dark wishes to admit, and when he is recommended to see a psychiatrist, played by Mel Gibson in almost as much makeup as Downey, he initially refuses to give anything away. However, Dark's apparent hatred of women, supposed to be caused by the infidelity of his wife Nicola (Robin Wright), has a more deep seated reason. When he was a child, he witnessed his mother (Carla Gugino) committing adultery with his father's business partner, with the result that Dark and his mother left to take refuge in an unwelcoming Los Angeles. He's never forgiven her.
All this digging around in Dark's mind is rendered in the same theatrical style as the television series, but to lesser effect. There are musical numbers which see the cast miming along to hits of the fifties such as "Mister Sandman" and "Poison Ivy", but there's little done to make them cinematic, they are simply wheeled on like interludes without adding much except a distraction. The most famous scenes of the series are recreated, like the aforementioned adultery, and of course, the greasing sequence, now starring nurse Katie Holmes, where Dark fights not to become aroused by her medical attentions, but the narrative compression, and relocation to America, has resulted in a different tone.
Here, Dark may be understandably bitter, but his tantrums and Downey's irritable performance come across as more petulant than anything else. As the film drags on, he begins to look like a self-obsessed bore rather than tragic figure deserving of our pity, and the only way we are aware that time is progressing is by the improving condition of his skin. Comparisons to a television series which stuck so vividly in the minds of many viewers are inevitable, and anyone arriving at the film without having seen the previous portrayal may well wonder what the fuss was all about. This Singing Detective sounds flat, and sad to say is nothing more than a belated footnote to an important dramatist's career. Did we really need to hear Downey singing, not miming, over the end credits?