Life on the singles scene: Seattle, early 90s. Singles has a multiple plot structure, linked by the fact that most of the protagonists live in the same apartment block. All of them are in their twenties and looking for love. Janet (Bridget Fonda) fancies happy-go-lucky Cliff (Matt Dillon), who holds down multiple jobs and sings in local rock band Citizen Dick. Debbie (Sheila Kelley) uses dating agencies in her search for Mr Right. But does he love her back? Meanwhile, Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), on the rebound from a two-day fling with a Spanish student, meets Steve (Campbell Scott) at a club…
I saw Singles on its British release in 1993 and loved it. Watching it again ten years later is a different experience. Cameron Crowe’s second film as writer-director is certainly full of good things: an engaging cast, sharp dialogue, some very funny setpieces, not to mention a first-rate soundtrack. It’s still an enjoyable hour and a half, so it may seem ungrateful to report that the film really doesn’t hang together as well as it could, that all those delightful parts don’t add up to a completely satisfying whole. Crowe at the time was – and still is, really – a writer who directs rather than a writer-director. His films are almost entirely driven by his screenplays; his direction is certainly very competent, but it doesn’t shape the material rather than simply illustrate it. (Though you have to give Crowe the director credit for his ability with actors.) At this stage in his career he was probably quite reliant on his cinematographers: Laszlo Kovacs on Say Anything… and Ueli Steiger here. Steiger’s naturalistic work adds greatly to the film’s texture and sense of place: fortunately he doesn’t give the film a clichéd overlit comedy look. Crowe’s directorial inexperience shows in some awkwardly mismatched shots here and there. But it’s the script that shows, and although it’s uneven, tending towards the episodic, at its best it shines.
Crowe has always been based in romantic comedy. This film and Say Anything… are squarely within the genre. His later films move away from the “pure” romantic comedy, but the best moments of perhaps Jerry Maguire (his finest film to date) and certainly Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky still betray Crowe’s roots. Singles is an ensemble piece, more so than all his films except maybe the Crowe-scripted Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Linda, Steve and Janet are fully-rounded characters. However, some of the other roles, notably Cliff and Debbie, are underwritten and verge on caricature. This is an episodic film (it’s divided into named sections, mostly from a particular character’s viewpoint), but some work better than others, and there are individual scenes which work in isolation but disrupt the film’s flow. There are appearances from the bands Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and cameos from some of their members, not to mention Tim Burton as the dating agency video director. There are brief appearances from Tom Skerritt, Crowe regular Eric Stoltz as a mime delivering the message “Love disappears” and Victor Garber (uncredited, towards the end). Crowe himself appears as a man interviewing Cliff in a club.
On the plus side, it’s certainly good to see such underused actors as Scott and Sedgwick given roles worthy of their talents. Fonda is fine as well, as are Dillon and Kelley within the confines of their roles. The soundtrack, by The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and featuring tracks from many of the leading grunge bands from the Seattle area, is excellent and made for a best-selling CD. For Crowe fans, it’s fascinating to see him expanding his range and trying out material and techniques that would come to fruition in Jerry Maguire and his later films: for example, note the way he uses voiceover (and straight to camera address) to get his exposition across, and to cover what would be the entire plot of a different film in under ten minutes. Singles is a transitional work, certainly flawed but at best very enjoyable, a time capsule for its era, and an engaging romantic comedy that doesn’t insult your intelligence.
Singles is a typical Warners back-catalogue release: good transfer and sound, but minimal extras. As for the picture, it’s anamorphic in the ratio of 16:9, opening the matte up a little from the cinema ratio of 1.85:1. That doesn’t make much difference, as this isn’t a film which depends overmuch on its visuals, for reasons I go into above. The picture quality is well up to scratch, with only a handful of incidents of aliasing in the places where you normally find it. There’s a slight softness to the image in places, but that’s down to the original materials: a hard, sharp look isn’t appropriate for this kind of film.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Surround, in the original English and with French and Italian dubs. It’s quite a busy mix, with the surround channels adding a lot of impact to the club scenes. There are some directional effects, for example the shot of Cliff playing guitar at Jimi Hendrix’s memorial plaque. Digital cinema sound was just being introduced when Singles was made and, while the present mix is certainly faithful to what you would have heard in a cinema (particularly if you turn the volume up), you can’t help thinking that a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1 would benefit the film considerably, particularly given the large amount of music on the soundtrack. Helpfully, the chapter index inside the case indicates where most of the major songs are to be found. There are thirty-three chapter stops in all, which is more than enough for a film just over an hour and a half in length.
The extras may be minimal, but at least there are some. First off is the theatrical trailer, running 1:52. It’s anamorphic, but for reasons I can’t explain, it’s in a ratio of 2.35:1. It’s possible that Singles was shot in Super 35 and then released to cinemas in 1.85:1 (as were quite a few films of around that time), but I’ve yet to find any reference source which backs that up. There are also two outtake scenes (3:17 and 3:05), both in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. These clips are rather worse for wear, being over-contresty and noticeably scratched. The first outtake involves Steve: he calls on Linda to find that she doesn’t live at her address anymore (featuring a cameo from Debi Mazar); he wanders past a newsstand (which is still in the final film), and has a fantasy episode where the magazine covers “talk” to him. In the second outtake, Bailey (Jim True) has an encounter in a café with a French poet, played by Lara Harris. The French dialogue in this scene has burned-in subtitles. After the second outtake is a short cast-and-crew listing for these scenes, which is a nice touch. Both outtakes are worth having, though it’s easy to see why they were removed from the final version. The first one in particular would have ground the film to a halt close to its final stages. All that remains of the extras is a text page listing the principal cast and crew. As usual, this is redundant as this information is the credit sequences of the film itself, not to mention the back of the case.
Singles is certainly an entertaining, warm romantic comedy that’s worth your time but somehow, and frustratingly, isn’t quite as good as it should be. With hindsight it looks more and more like a transitional work in Crowe’s career, moving on from one early triumph (Say Anything…) and leading up to a later one (Jerry Maguire). It’s decently presented on a more or less standard Warners disc. In the absence of a more elaborate edition, this will certainly suffice, particularly as you’re likely to be able to pick it up cheaply.