It's a pity that Bobby Darin is largely forgotten today. In the '60s, when the singer-composerdancer's star was not just rising but soaring, he was a powerhouse of entertainment, donning a tux, selling out big rooms in Vegas in front of full orchestras and touring the world. When the music scene changed and his big, brash style of crooning was headed toward irrelevancy, he put the tux aside for a pair of jeans and became Bob Darin, folk singer. Toward the end of his unfairly short life, his act was a combination of Bob and Bobby, and he was still in top form.
Kevin Spacey has had the idea of doing a movie about Darin for about as long as he's been in the movies. And while Beyond the Sea may not match the excitement of Darin himself, it does put the performer up on the pedestal where he belongs.
The film was co-written by, directed by and stars Spacey, who puts on a long, straight prosthetic nose -- much like the one used by Nicole Kidman in The Hours -- to make him look like his idol.
The film starts with Darin on a movie set, directing a film about himself, but he keeps arguing with cast and crew about what should happen next. He ends up chatting with a kid (William Ullrich), who's playing him as a boy, who tells him that he's not playing him, he is him. And before you can say, "Look out, old Mackie's back," the film shoots back to Darin's boyhood, and scenes of his single mom (Brenda Blethyn) teaching him to sing and play the piano.
Plenty of biographical stuff is revealed here -- he has a bad ticker and isn't expected to live to 15, she's an ex-vaudevillian. But this is also where Spacey simply forgets about the device of this being a flashback. Luckily, this actually gives the film some zest. In a scene that could have come right out of West Side Story, he segues into a terrific fantasy sequence in which everyone on the screen bursts into a frenzy of dancing in the streets.
While it looks like Darin is a character who's going to be a big success early on, in fact it took try after try before he scored a hit -- Splish Splash. But that wasn't good enough for his star-struck mom. She wanted him to be the next Sinatra.
Spacey's a bright-enough director to know that he could never let the film get bogged down with all of Darin's accomplishments. So he streamlines them. Appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, This Is Your Life and a Grammy Awards broadcast all flash by. Soon he's in Italy, in a costarring role with Rock Hudson and ingenue Sandra Dee in the romantic comedy Come September. It's here that he's smitten by and attempts to woo Dee (Kate Bosworth, with a big, glowing, genuine smile). And it's here that the film gets a little lost in telling its story: It's hard to understand some of Dee's erratic behavior.
But good fortune keeps ending up on Spacey's side, and the film keeps jumping back to life with a fantasy sequence here, a dazzling piece of choreography there. Darin in a canary-yellow suit is a particularly nice touch.
This isn't just a starring role for Spacey; it's a genuine showcase. His dancing may be a little stiff, but his singing is another story. Close your eyes while he's doing "Mack the Knife," and you'll be willing to bet large sums that you're hearing a Darin recording. Another terrific role belongs to Greta Scacchi as Mary, Dee's pushy stage mom from hell who, upon learning that her daughter and Darin are engaged, loudly and angrily berates her and calls him a loser. But Bosworth over-emotes her part, while Bob Hoskins as Darin's brother-in-law and John Goodman as his manager sleepwalk through theirs.
The latter parts of the film devolve into melodrama, despite Spacey's subtle touches. When his wife demands that he spend more time at home because she needs normalcy, he shoots back that performing is his life. When he runs away from the world for a while, he does it with a stethoscope casually dangling around his neck, to check his heart, fully aware that he's cheated death since childhood.
Darin did die young, but with Spacey's inventive new bio pic, he seems to have cheated death once again.