I knew the name Bobby Darin, but I didn’t know how many famous songs he sang until I saw Beyond the Sea: “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” and “Mack the Knife” and, naturally, the title tune among others. In some ways, time has not been kind to Darin. Despite having had a successful career (and songs that have outlived him), Darin is not often remembered with the same intense fondness as, say, Frank Sinatra. That could change with this film. Sometimes all it takes is a reminder. If Kevin Spacey has his way, America will soon be singing Darin’s songs again; he directed, co-wrote, and stars in Beyond the Sea, a labor of love he has toiled on for years.
As with most biopics, the story follows its subject’s life starting from its early days. After a childhood bout with rheumatic fever that left his heart damaged, young Bobby finds solace in music. His mother Polly (Brenda Blethyn) plants the show biz seeds in his head, encouraging him to pursue stardom. As a young man, Bobby’s career begins to take shape. With the help of friend and manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman), he gets a few Vegas gigs. Around this time, he also records a little ditty called “Splish Splash” that turns him into a teen heartthrob. Interestingly, Bobby seems to have little interest in being this kind of star. He refuses to take the easy bubblegum route, choosing instead to pursue different, more mature types of music.
He also turns to acting, where he meets Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). From the start, he is infatuated with her. The key to winning her heart, Bobby believes, is in charming her protective mother (Greta Scacchi). Sandra initially rejects Bobby’s advances but soon falls under his spell and agrees to marry him. Their show business dreams occasionally clash, as Bobby invests increasingly larger amounts of time trying to be the architect of his own legend. The marriage becomes particularly strained after he loses an Academy Award. Eventually his music career begins to tumble as well, leaving Bobby as bitter as he is determined to regain his former glory.
Beyond the Sea is the third musical biopic I’ve seen this year, and thematically it’s also the least focused. I’m not sure if the film knows what it wants to say about Bobby Darin. Last summer’s De-Lovely suggested that Cole Porter’s wistful love songs came from his inability to get from his wife what he got from his male lovers, and vice versa. October’s Ray showed us how Ray Charles broke down both racial and musical barriers, influencing artists for decades to come. The ideas in De-Lovely and Ray made me understand why someone would want to make movies about their subjects. Beyond the Sea doesn’t really have that big idea that propels it. All we come to know about Bobby Darin is that he was talented and, quite frankly, a bit of a narcissistic jerk who thought he deserved fame.
The other misstep is unintended. Kevin Spacey is my favorite actor. He’s always good and he never phones in a performance. But he’s older now than Bobby Darin was when he died, which leads to some awkwardness. Specifically, there is an unintentional creepiness to the romantic scenes between Bobby (played by the 44-year old actor) and Sandra Dee (played by 21-year old Kate Bosworth). In some of the scenes, Sandra’s mother tries to keep her daughter away from Darin, and it’s impossible not to think that she is wise in doing so. Beyond the Sea tries to compensate for the Spacey/Bosworth age gap by telling the story as a movie-within-a-movie where the older Bobby Darin plays himself even in flashback. Nevertheless, he comes off looking like a predator in the love scenes.
Those are two sizable flaws, but I have to say that Beyond the Sea succeeds in spite of them. Kevin Spacey toiled for years to bring this story to the screen and he acts his heart out in the central role. We feel Bobby Darin’s drive to become a star, preferably one who is bigger than Sinatra (his self-appointed rival). When he finally realizes his life’s dream of playing the Copacabana, we understand what a personal victory it is for him. Spacey does a first-rate job playing a man who was apparently very driven, no matter what the cost. Kate Bosworth is similarly good playing Sandra Dee. It would have been easy to just play Sandra Dee’s well-known public persona – that of a virtuous and wholesome young woman. Bosworth finds more depth to the character, though. She shows us how Sandra Dee’s quest to meet her own show-biz dreams sometimes painfully conflicts with her husband’s quest to meet his.
I also liked how the movie depicts the character’s final years. A slightly older Bobby, caught up in the turbulence of the late 60’s and early 70’s, starts trying to make politically relevant music. Audiences roundly reject his new style; they only want to hear “Splish Splash.” Offended that the so-called “fans” would reject a heartfelt message in favor of fluff, Darin looks for a way to make the package more attractive. This is a compelling look at an artist in both transition and turmoil. There’s also a late revelation about Bobby Darin’s life, which I will not reveal here except to say that it makes for some pretty riveting drama.
And, of course, there is the music. Beyond the Sea has lots of musical numbers, and they are nothing short of terrific. Spacey (the director) has a good eye for how to stage them in ways that are eye-popping and energetic. This is the prime selling point of the movie. For whatever it occasionally lacks in focus, the movie compensates for by giving us one toe-tapping production number after another. Amazingly, Spacey does all his own singing in the film. Here’s one more thing that the two-time Oscar winner does well.
Beyond the Sea ends with a most unusual disclaimer saying that the film is not a literal retelling of Bobby Darin’s life but an impressionistic one. In other words, sticklers for accuracy may run screaming down the aisles. If that doesn’t bother you, there is some good stuff to be found in this movie. It finds its rhythm as it goes on. Although the film doesn’t ever bring Darin’s life into sharp focus, it at least gives us an appealing dose of show-biz razzle dazzle. Bobby Darin would doubtlessly approve of that.
( out of four)
Beyond the Sea is rated PG-13 for some strong language and a scene of sensuality. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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