The Singing Detective

You May Have heard about the Robert Downey Jr. remake of this brilliant 1986 English TV miniseries written by Dennis Potter. The new version screened at Sundance to so-so reviews and should arrive in theaters this fall, but this three-disc set (out April 15) is essential viewing firstan exception to my usual “movies only” rule for this column.

The great Michael Gambon (Gosford Park) plays a miserable writer confined to his hospital bed with a horrific outbreak of psoriatic arthropathy (which also plagued Potter until his 1994 death). He argues with fellow patients and curses his nurses to distract himself from the pain, but mainly he rewrites one of his old detective stories (The Singing Detective) with a new plot that interweaves imaginary and real figures from his own life.

Over some seven hours of flashbacks, fantasies, and lip-synched musical numbers (a Potter hallmark), the past and present blur together until they’re indistinguishable in Detective‘s pulpy pages. The writer’s unhappy ’40s childhood contrasts with his book’s hard-boiled hero (also Gambon), who croons from a bandstand when he’s not cracking crimes and looking for clues. But for the writer, and for Potter, those clues lead inexorably into the pastand a certain female corpse in the river.

Extras include a commentary by director John Amielwho’s since, um, distinguished himself with The Coreplus an invaluable Potter interview and profile. In an age when reality TV has hit bottom (what’s that rolling sound I hear from the grave?), Detective reminds us how high television can reach.

Other worthy choices reaching disc include the 1996 abortion satire Citizen Ruth (April 8), with commentary by co-writer and Seattle resident Jim Taylor, and Rabbit-Proof Fence (April 15), with chat tracks from director Phillip Noyce and Kenneth Branagh. Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away also debuts April 15 along with his earlier Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service. On the same date, Evelyn, with Pierce Brosnan, is a nice family pick. Made before the fall of the Taliban, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar has some sequences you will not forget. 101 Reykjav��/I> is a nifty Icelandic slacker comedy, while Second Skin is a guilty-pleasure gay melodrama with Javier Bardem.