Beyond the Sea
directed by Kevin Spacey
starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Bob Hoskins, John Goodman
Beyond the Sea is not your typical rock-star tragedy biopic, not a La Bamba or Buddy Holly Story. Rather, it’s a portrait of a man who managed to live three lifetimes in 37 years, a somewhat non-linear encapsulation of a career that spanned from teen idol (“Splish Splash”) to nightclub icon (“Mack the Knife,” “Beyond the Sea”) to disillusioned folk singer (“Simple Song of Freedom”).
In presenting the life of Bobby Darin — one of the 20th century’s most talented and intriguing performers — to a 21st century audience, actor-director Kevin Spacey takes some cinematic gambles — and comes up aces. In order to effectively span Darin’s life, Spacey (who also co-produced and co-wrote) takes some liberties with modern filmmaking formulas; the result is a series of dramatic snippets and flashbacks interwoven with fantastic musical performances and clever dance sequences, a film that would have been hardly innovative in 1960, but in 2004, seems daring and fresh.
The film begins with Darin singing in his own film biography, circa 1966. Between takes, Darin is confronted by the kid (William Ullrich) who is playing him in his youth, who turns out to be sort of a pint-sized ghost of Christmas past. Young Darin leads the singer back to his beginnings in the Bronx, where his mother (Brenda Blethyn) introduces him to music.
Spacey frequently uses the time-traveling-kid segue device in the film, as Darin goes from a desperate, driven teen not expected to live past his twenties (repeated childhood bouts with rheumatic fever damaged Darin’s heart) to heartthrob in a flash. But the singer, who grew up idolizing Sinatra, is not satisfied with rock ‘n’ roll. In an early scene, Darin informs Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun (Tayfun Bademsoy) that he wants to break into adult contemporary. When Ertegun tells the young singer that he’s already a star, Darin replies, “I’ll be a star when the delivery boy recognizes me.”
Surrounded by an entourage of his mother’s making — including brother-in-law Charlie (Bob Hoskins), sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) and manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman) — Darin begins to assume the persona of nightclub crooner and film actor. Spacey turns Darin’s whirlwind courtship of teen queen Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) on the set of Come September into the high point of the film with a breezy and brilliant song-and-dance sequence.
From this point on, Bosworth visually commands every scene in which she appears with her sheer beauty. While Darin and Dee approach the peak of their individual careers, it becomes painfully apparent to the actress that she will always play second fiddle to her husband’s tunnel-visioned drive to the top. Soon relegated to the role of trophy wife and mother to their son Dodd, Dee dives into alcoholism. Alarmed by the Vietnam conflict and faced with the fact that his beloved cocktail culture is coming to an end, Darin takes a commercially disastrous yet completely genuine stab at folk singing and supporting Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. A revealed family secret devastates the singer; this jolt, combined with his divorce from Dee and the roundhouse punch of Kennedy’s assassination, drives Darin to a “lost weekend” in Big Sur. For much of a year, the former chart-topper abandons his Hollywood trappings, living in a trailer and writing folk songs. His comeback is actually a series of small triumphs, cut short by his death in 1973.
Some Darin fans might feel that Spacey glosses over or completely omits too much of the performer’s complex and frantic life — Darin’s early alliance with future music giant Don Kirshner is nowhere to be found, the divorce is barely mentioned, and the performer’s late-in-life remarriage is hushed. Conversely, a closer look at Darin’s involvement with the Kennedy campaign might have provided fodder for a very interesting segment. Spacey also could have peppered the film with cameos by Darin’s celebrity pals and critics — i.e. Elvis, George Burns, Sinatra — but his choice of a minimal cast (not including a medium-sized big band and a dance ensemble) leaves the movie resembling an intimate off-Broadway musical. What Spacey does concentrate on — Darin’s astonishing performances, his staunch support of civil rights, his all-consuming, tragic drive to succeed and the contemplative tone of his last years is more than enough material to fill a movie with.
There is more music in Beyond the Sea than in any musician’s biopic of recent memory — it becomes an active part of the film. The songs jump out from the screen, sung by Spacey, who might as well be Darin reincarnated. The Oscar winner — who has spent much of his lifetime studying the man — has Darin’s trademarked on-stage mannerisms perfected to an uncanny degree. The finger-snaps, the ad-libs, the dramatic poses — it’s all there, plus a voice that more than does the late singer justice.
Spacey is currently selling out venues — including a Las Vegas stint — with his live Darin homage; the film’s soundtrack (on Atco Records) is sure to garner a Grammy.
Those already familiar with Darin’s life would have to agree that the performer — a larger-than-life entertainer who achieved it all, at a terrible price — would completely approve of Spacey’s Beyond the Sea, a larger-than-life slice of pure entertainment.
Beyond The Sea: www.beyondthesea.com