Lion’s Gate Films/Trigger Street Productions
Produced by Jan Fantl-Andy Paterson-Kevin Spacey
Directed by Kevin Spacey
Written by Kevin Spacey-Lewis Colick
I think Bobby Darin’s version of “Mack The Knife” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded and it never fails to crack me up at the look on people’s faces when I tell them it’s a song about a serial killer. Apparently a lot of people never really listen to the lyrics of a song, especially this one. Mackie commits a whole lot of mayhem during the song and there’s even a couple of lyrics Bobby Darin left out of his version where Mack burns down an orphanage and rapes a underage girl. It’s a song that is light, bouncy, extremely cheerful sounding but hides a lot of darkness. Listening to “Mack The Knife” is like unwrapping a glittering, beautifully wrapped gift box and finding a decaying heart inside.
The movie biopic of Bobby Darin’s life, BEYOND THE SEA is also, light, bouncy, extremely cheerful. It’s full of glitter and beautifully filmed. But there’s no darkness to contrast the beauty. In fact, as you watch BEYOND THE SEA you may get the feeling that you’re watching a less than objective examination of Bobby Darin’s life. I’ve read that Kevin Spacey worships at the alter of Bobby Darin and spent 17 years trying to get this movie made. And it shows. It’s most definitely a vanity project and it’s not a bad one. I just don’t think it’s an altogether honest one.
The movie starts out with Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) on the set of a movie he’s making about his life. He’s pissing off the crew and cast because he insists on take after take of the opening number. A young boy pops up on the set. Supposedly it’s the child actor (William Ullrich) who is playing Bobby Darin as a child but in a left turn the movie takes into fantasy, it turns out that this actually is the real young Bobby Darin who takes his older self on a journey through their mutual past as they attempt to understand and come to terms with their life.
We see how the young Bobby Darin suffered for much of his early life with rheumatic fever and his doctors didn’t expect him to live to see his 15th birthday. Once his mother (Brenda Blethyn) introduces him to music, Bobby not only lives and thrives but goes on to a career in entertainment, assisted by his sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) her husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins) and his manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman) where he becomes a big hit with the teeny boppers with his first major hit; “Splish Splash”.
Now, the more perceptive of you who are familiar with my reviews may think that I rushed through an awful lot in the preceding paragraph. Think of how I felt watching the movie. It goes from the sickly Bobby Darin as a boy with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel to the adult Bobby Darin being a smash hit on ‘American Bandstand’ in the first half hour of the movie. Considering the movie is nearly 2 hours long I was wondering what was going to fill up the rest of the running time.
I didn’t have to worry. The rest of BEYOND THE SEA is mostly taken up with telling us what a great guy and what a brilliant performer Bobby Darin is. Even though he’s described in some scenes as being ‘an arrogant asshole’ nobody in the movie really seems to mind all that much. Nobody really argues with Bobby. He never seems to have problems. He marries Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) who was the hottest actress in Hollywood at that time. His albums sell faster than hotcakes (how fast do hotcakes sell, anyway?) His club dates and concerts are standing room only. Hollywood begs him to make movies. He’s beloved by millions. I was sitting watching the movie and waiting for Bobby Darin to roll back the rock and holla at Lazarus to come on out and play, as I was convinced it was going to happen sooner or later.
That’s the problem with BEYOND THE SEA. Kevin Spacey is so in love with Bobby Darin that he obviously couldn’t bear to show us the dark side of the man or show us what struggles he certainly must have gone through during his career. We understand why he was so driven to be a success since he considered every day to be a gift since he was supposed to have died as a child. But if you go by the movie, Bobby Darin didn’t seem to have to work very hard for his success. Or his relationships. There’s a scene where he courts Sandra Dee with a lavish musical number and bingo, she ups and marries him. Sandra Dee’s mother is violently opposed to the marriage but in virtually the very next scene, Moms is hanging out with Bobby and Sandra at home when their first child is born with no explanation of how they got from There to Here.
There’s a nice scene where Bobby throws a tantrum after losing out on the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor to Melvyn Douglas and Sandra Dee tells him quite sensibly that it took Douglas 40 years to get a nomination and it only took Bobby two and he should be happy with that. But then the scene turns into a farce as both Bobby and Sandra get into a madcap chase as they try to beat each other in leaving the other first. Yeah, I know how it sounds but that’s what happens. We learn very little about Bobby’s relationship with his children other than he loves them very much and they love him (yawn) and there’s a major revelation in his life that causes him to write a stirring protest song against the war in Vietnam.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to cheerful, happy movies and I’m glad that BEYOND THE SEA spared us the usual story arc that is standard operating procedure in a biopic of an entertainer. But by presenting Bobby Darin as a near perfect icon with no flaws makes for some damn boring movie watching, I tell you what. The most glaring example of this is when the movie takes time to show that Sandra Dee was an alcoholic but never shows us how Bobby dealt with it or indeed, how it was dealt with at all. There’s a scene in Las Vegas when Bobby and Sandra talk about her drinking and Bobby makes a soulful plea for her to cut back on the booze and apparently she does so because the subject is never addressed again. Hell, didn’t everybody back then drink to excess? Maybe everybody except for Saint Bobby, I guess.
Maybe I’d better just concentrate on what I liked about the movie. During its theatrical release there was a big deal made about how Kevin Spacey did his own singing in the movie and he even went on a nationwide tour with a full orchestra singing Bobby Darin songs. And make no mistake: Kevin Spacey is a pretty good singer and he does a wonderful job of dancing in the movie’s several terrific musical numbers. He’s no Sammy Davis, Jr. but he’s far better than you would expect him to be. During the scenes where he performs at Las Vegas hotels you can see that Spacey would have been right at home hanging out with The Rat Pack.
Kate Bosworth has never impressed me with her acting and I think she’s horribly miscast as Sandra Dee (although not as horribly miscast as Gwen Stefani playing Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator”) while John Goodman has very little to do as Bobby Darin’s Manager. His role consists mainly of bringing Bobby good news: “I got you the Copacabana!” or “You’re playing The Flamingo in Vegas!” Bob Hoskins as Bobby Darin’s brother-in-law probably comes off as the best actor besides Spacey himself in this one. They have a more complicated relationship than even the one Darin has with his wife.
So should you see BEYOND THE SEA? I recommend the movie on the basis of how much you like Kevin Spacey as an actor. Me, I’ve loved him ever since he showed up on the TV show ‘Wiseguy’ and if he didn’t do any other movies after ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’ he’d still be a genius as far as I’m concerned. He does his usual great job of acting here but I think he should have turned the directing job over to someone else who would have been more objective. I didn’t know much about Bobby Darin before watching this movie and after I finished I found myself not wanting to find out more. Usually a biopic like “The Aviator” or “Ray” will lead me to dig deeper and learn more about the subject of the movie. After two hours of Kevin Spacey trying to convince me how terrific and funny and brilliant and innovative and daring Bobby Darin was, I felt I knew all about the guy I wanted to.