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Beyond the Sea Print E-mail
Tuesday, 28 December 2004
The night after I saw “Beyond the Sea,” Kevin Spacey’s movie biography of singer Bobby Darin, I heard Darin’s “Mack the Knife” playing on the jukebox at a restaurant. This is a common occurrence: these days, jukeboxes are often loaded with songs from the past, and frequently with that specific song. And why not? It’s a terrific rendition of a terrific song and, these days, probably Darin’s most famous recording.

But why did Spacey want so much to do this film? He’s been talking about it for years, trying to sell it to one studio after another. Maybe they were reluctant because most of Spacey’s movies since “American Beauty” have been disappointing, and financial failures. He’s still a great actor, perhaps the best of his generation, but his choices in movie properties are obviously questionable. Sure, Spacey’s been a fan of Darin since childhood, but were I in his position, I wouldn’t be struggling to do a movie biography of the Kingston Trio.

The problem is that though Darin cut a pretty vivid swath across late 50s and early 60s show business, he drifted largely out of public view and died at 37. His career underwent a mild rebirth when he turned to folk music with “If I Were a Carpenter,” a song not mentioned in the movie. He’d been a Las Vegas headliner, starred in a handful of movies, even getting a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “Captain Newman, M.D.”, but these days he’s as likely to be confused with contemporary James Darren as to be known for his own accomplishments. He did marry Sandra Dee when she was an authentic movie star, he did have a few hit records, and died young—but his life is not inherently dramatic.

In fact, the script for “Beyond the Sea,” credited to Lewis Colick, although others are known to have worked on it, certainly Spacey himself, is largely like other biopics. This is largely because the lives of showbiz celebrities often describe similar arcs—the childhood years, the years of struggle, of climbing to the top, the discovery that the top isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, the troubled romantic relations, the decline, the recovery. It’s not Spacey’s fault that this applies to Darin’s brief life just as it does to the lives of many another star. But he’s clearly aware of these limitations, and takes steps to dodge them.
Like “De-Lovely,” the Cole Porter biopic released earlier this year, like “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” now showing on HBO, “Beyond the Sea” presents Darin’s life as a theatrical production—a movie. We see Darin arrive at a night club, accompanied by his entourage; he gets on stage and goes into “Mack the Knife,” but then catches sight of a boy (William Ullrich) lurking in the wings. Darin calls a halt—and we see that he’s filming a movie biography of his own life. (Spacey has been taunted for being too old to play Darin, and deals with this directly: A bystander says, “He’s too old to play this part,” and someone else responds, “He was born to play this part.” Take that, nay sayers.)

Annoyed, Darin takes the boy aside; he was hired to play Darin as a kid, and now IS Darin as a kid. With a snap of the boy’s fingers, Darin finds himself on the Bronx street where, as Walden Robert Cassotto, he grew up. We see his close relationship with his mother, Polly (Brenda Blethyn)—he never knew his father—and with his older sister Nina (Caroline Aaron). Nina is married to Charlie Maffia (Bob Hoskins), who becomes Bobby’s closest friend in later years. The boy Bobby is stricken with rheumatic fever, leaving him with a damaged heart (it’s what later killed him), and the warning that he probably won’t live to see 15.

But his determined mother, once in showbiz, is convinced that music can help Bobby keep going. (This is presented as a major idea, a central theme, but becomes blurred in the later stretches of the film.) She buys him a piano and teaches him to play, and as they do a great rendition of “Up a Lazy River,” the movie goes into a beautifully-staged, elaborate dance production on that Bronx street. This approach—turning “Beyond the Sea” into an early-50s-styled musical—isn’t followed consistently, but all the musical numbers are exciting and well staged. Spacey does his own singing and dancing, but in Darin’s style. He remains very close to his mother until her death.

He starts as a kind of Pete Seeger-ish folk singer, but moves over to pop and eventually rock, having a nationwide hit with the silly but lively “Splish Splash.” His manager, Steve Blauner (John Goodman), urges him to continue in rock, but Darin sees his big rival—and goal—as Frank Sinatra, another Italian kid risen from the streets. He adopted the last name of Darin (from a half-burned-out Mandarin restaurant sign), and lands squarely in popular music, poised somewhere between Elvis, Pat Boone and Sinatra.

“Dream Lover” and “Mack the Knife” are also hits, and Darin moves over to movies. His big break—presented inaccurately as his first movie—is a romantic comedy shot in Italy, co-starring Rock Hudson (not depicted) and Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). Bobby shrewdly romances Sandra’s domineering mother Mary (Greta Scacchi) as much as he does Sandra. But he finally wins the starlet, and they are married. (In real life, they divorced in 1967, but that’s not mentioned here.) They have a son, and Bobby’s career continues, so he spends less and less time at home.

Those who knew the real Bobby Darin often mention his darker side; he was arrogant and egotistical, and not all that likeable. But Spacey sanitizes Darin, suggesting again and again that he was more sinned against than sinning. We do see him throw a snit after he loses at the Oscars, and he occasionally sneers at Sandra’s claims that she, too, has a career. But they always end up back in each other’s arms. This whitewashing of Darin’s complexities is an error; it reduces him to a plaster saint and a mere victim of fate. There was more to him than that, and for all his hero-worship of the singer-actor, Spacey undercuts Darin by making him more—and therefore also less—than the real person he was.

That being said, the movie is still fascinating to watch. I think it’s unprecedented in movie history for an entertainer to direct and star in a film biography of another entertainer. Sure, there have been lots of showbiz biopics, but no other was conceived and created by the leading actor. Spacey’s performance is generally very good, and he does make Darin appealing enough that we feel a sense of loss toward the end (his death is not shown). But he also emphasizes the triumph of Darin. At the very end, he and the boy Bobby go into one last, triumphant number, and in the catching-up text at the end, it says “Bobby Darin is still swingin.’” And sure enough, he is—there was that song on the jukebox.

Spacey worked hard over several years doing intensive vocal training to learn to sing. It’s paid off—he sounds completely professional in the movie, and it’s always his voice you hear. Spacey knew that some of the numbers he planned extended the lyrics and songs in ways not found in Darin’s recordings. So he does it all himself.

He’s also quite aware of what he’s doing; that early line about him being too old to play Darin is what he’s heard time and again from those to whom he pitched his Darin movie idea. In an interview, Spacey states that if you point out the elephant in the room, you’ve beat your critics at least to that particular punch. Darin’s hair thinned out very early, as Spacey’s own hair has. Darin did use toupees, as Space does—and he faces this squarely, too. At one point when Darin is fed up with his career, he smashes his records and trashes his surprisingly large number of hairpieces. Spacey goes so far as to replace Darin’s face with his own on album covers and movie posters seen in the film.

Kate Bosworth is very good in a role that must have been hard to play, as the script never gets a focus on Sandra Dee’s character. On their wedding night, she breaks down in tears, but it’s unclear why. There are a few bits suggesting she’s becoming an alcoholic, but they’re just dropped in without any follow-up. When Darin learns something shocking about his own past, he disappears—but we don’t see the effect on Sandra. After a certain point, her mother is only mentioned, never seen again. We should have seen more, not less, of Dee, as her marriage to Darin was one of the major Hollywood matches of its time. After about 1970, she rarely got work; her last film was a low-budget effort released in 1986, and she’s seldom been heard from since. Including about this movie.

It’s hard to sort out most of Darin’s entourage, except for Bob Hoskins’ warm, colorful (at times, too much so) Charlie. John Goodman, for once in his career, is unsatisfactory as Blauner, a childhood friend who became Darin’s manager—and still handles the Darin songbook. Caroline Aaron is impressive as Nina, Bobby’s older sister, especially in the scene in which she reveals the family secret. (You may know what this is already; the revelation was surprising, even notorious.)

Though Darin had other friends and dealt with other celebrities, we never see them. There’s a sense of he and Sandra being isolated from the rest of the world, in and out of Hollywood.

As director, Spacey employs fantasy elements inventively. At his mother’s funeral, he breaks down in tears over her costume, and then his entourage hustle him out of the church, dressing him in a tux as they go; in the background the doors of the church open directly onto a stage, while the boy Bobby takes the adult Bobby’s place at the coffin. Spacey glances directly at the camera at least once, and even tells the boy Bobby that what they’re doing at the moment is a fantasy sequence.

“Beyond the Sea” is a handsome, well-acted production, shot in colorful wide screen, looking at times much like a movie made in the early ‘60s. Its half-a-musical approach is fresh and appealing, the numbers well-staged, and Darin’s songs used creatively throughout—and for once, we hear the whole songs. There are some Spacey is even now touring the West Coast doing a one-man show, not so much as Darin, but as himself singing Darin’s songs.

But as entertaining as “Beyond the Sea” often is, it’s hard not to feel that, well, I hope Kevin Spacey has got that out of his system. It’s a tribute to Bobby Darin, that’s without question, but it’s an uneven movie that doesn’t quite show why Darin’s life was worthy of being filmed.

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