Beyond the Sea

Robin Clifford
Robin Clifford 
 Beyond the Sea
Laura Clifford Laura Clifford 
Walden Robert Cassotto had rheumatic fever at a young age, damaging his heart, and the doctors claimed he would not see his 15th year. But, his mother, Polly (Brenda Blethyn), an old-fashioned vaudevillian, loved music and instilled that love in her son, helping him beat the odds. At 20 he takes his music on the road but his moniker proved a big problem. But, when he changes his name to Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) a legend is born in “Beyond the Sea.”

Kevin Spacey takes on a boatload of tasks as the director/star/producer/cowriter with his longtime project of bringing the life of 1950’s and 60’s music icon, Bobby Darin, to life. The man who made a “Splish Splash” as his first foray into pop music continued on to create some timeless standards (think Mack the Knife) and, even, earn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (“Captain Newman, M.D.”).

I have been a minor fan, since I was a kid, of Bobby Darin with his seminal song “Mack the Knife” and a stirring (and deserved of the Oscar nod) performance in “Captain Newman, M.D.” with Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis and Angie Dickinson. The singer/actor has some memorable tunes to his credit, besides “Mack,” such as the film’s song title, but I wonder at Kevin Spacey’s making a biopic out of the relatively short life of songster Darin.

This is a true labor of love by Spacey, one that he spent years putting together and preparing for. The filmmaker did his homework and received the full cooperation of Bobby Darin’s estate, getting permission to do the covers for Darin’s songs. Kevin Spacey does a creditable job recreating the man’s music and, through some very subtle makeup, resembles the singer remarkably. This is where “Beyond the Sea” escapes from its old-fashioned, almost stodgy, biopic nature.

Spacey and company use a number of devices to tell the story of the crooner who some thought to be greater than even Frank Sinatra. The film begins as a movie within a movie as Darin is announced on stage and appears, belting out “Mack the Knife.” Then, he calls Cut!” and we are ported back to Darin’s childhood where there is little hope for the boy’s chances of survival. Spacey sporadically uses the film-in-film method and his young alter ego (William Ullrich) throughout the story while telling about the singer’s life in straightforward, chronological order.

We are shown how Polly, Walden’s life- and music-loving mother, using her old vaudeville talents to teach the boy music and instill in him an appreciation for it. Music makes him free and Walden breaks the predictions of doom and demise by the doctors and becomes a minor singing celebrity. But things don’t really start popping until the name change and, as they say, history is made.

Beyond the Sea” tells of Darin’s battles to get his songs recorded and played; his breakthrough to teen idol status with “Splish Splash”; his further breakthrough to other age levels with his 1959 hit album of standard, “That’s All”; the whirlwind courtship and marriage to teen screen queen Sandra Dee and there subsequent breakup; and, Darin’s fall from fame during the Vietnam war only to be resurrected with his protest song, “Simple Song of Freedom.”

As expected when the star also wears a whole bunch of other hats, the focus of “Beyond the Sea” is squarely on Kevin Spacey. He does an admirable job in recreating the life of the man and deserves note for the effort. After Spacey, though, the other performances in the film take a back seat to the star, with the exception of Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee. The young actress gives an apple cheeked perf when she is first wooed by Darin and turns bitter and resentful as his career takes precedence over their marriage. The change from apple-pie wholesomeness to chain-smoking, boozing bitterness is very well handled by the young actress. Others, such as John Goodman as Darin’s best friend Steve Blauner and Greta Scacchi as Dee’s overbearing mother, Mary, are given scant little to do. Young William Ullrich, as Little Bobby, lends a nice presence and plays well off of Spacey.

The screenplay, by Kevin Spacey (with credit also given to Lewis Colick), is by the numbers, recreating moments (not all that well sometimes, as in the Captain Newman” scene) in Darin’s life. One heavy handed and annoying thread that follows through the whole film has Darin’s much older sister, Nina (Caroline Aaron), constantly showing up at clubs and concerts bearing a hurt attitude. You eventually learn she has a deep, dark secret that is supposed to be, I guess, a surprise, but did little more than aggravate with her too-frequent and irritating appearances. The whole relationship between bobby and Nina seem to be from the filmmaker’s psyche.

I was entertained by “Beyond the Sea” but was never bowled over. The music is great and kudos to Spacey for his renditions of Bobby Darin’s many songs. I give it a B.

At the age of seven, Walden Robert Cassotto (William Ullrich) of the Bronx was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and given about eight years to live, but his optimistic mother Polly (Brenda Blethyn, "Little Voice"), an old vaudeville performer, decides that singing is the proper course of action.  After having had a deep love of music instilled in him, the young man, who has reached the age of twenty, renames himself Bobby Darin and sets out to better Frank Sinatra and headline at the Copacabana nightclub in writer/director/star Kevin Spacey's "Beyond the Sea."

This odd vanity project is a good looking production with an overblown sense of its subject. Make-Up and Hair Designer Peter Swords King ("Quills," "Velvet Goldmine") has made Spacey an uncanny replication of Darin and Spacey's performances of Darin's material is equally impressive, but Spacey cannot convince us that Darin deserves equal footing with the iconic Frank Sinatra.

Spacey addresses his own age (forty-five, almost ten years older than Darin was when he died) right up front.  A nightclub performance of Darin's signature "Mack the Knife" is exposed as a film set scene, where Darin, surrounded by friends and family, is documenting his own life for posterity.  'How can you be too old to play yourself?' Bobby asks cronies Steve Blauner (John Goodman, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") and Dick Behrke (Peter Cincotti, "Spider-Man 2"), addressing Spacey's critics.

After pondering different ideas as to where to begin his film, Bobby follows the advice of the young costar who is playing himself as a boy and, drum roll, begins at the beginning.  A brief montage shows Darin's progression until he finally achieves fame by penning "Splish-Splash" for himself.  As in the other recent musician biopic, "Ray," Spacey lays out Darin's ability to cross musical genres, not content to stay with the teenybopper audience of his first hit.  The film's first act is capped with Darin's courtship of Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth, "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!"), his costar in his first real movie role, the Italian shot "Come September."  The second act charts Darin's successes, including hit songs, an Academy Award nomination for 1964's "Captain Newman, M.D." and that dreamt of pinnacle, a gig at the Copacabana, where he eventually bests Sinatra's attendance record.  The final third, using the corny symbol of a running down watch, notes Darin's marital difficulties, political activism and career rejuvenation after a long stretch of irrelevance, a difficult period during a serious health decline (Darin performed his later shows with the benefit of an oxygen tank at the ready offstage).

Spacey and co-writer Lewis Colick ("Ladder 49") use the film's structure to work performances of Darin's songs into his life and not keep them stagebound.  The film set approach also allows Darin to comment upon his own life.  Darin isn't whitewashed, his huge ego noted as both a deterrent to family life and an on set irritant, but his heroism isn't only attributed to his anti-war crusade and overcoming health obstacles. Darin's chivalrous behavior on his wedding night is charming and his fight for a black opening act for his first gig at the Copa is admirable.  The screenwriting duo make much to much out of Darin's maternity, however, with the surprise revelation that his sister, the uncouth Nina (Caroline Aaron, "Along Came Polly"), is actually his mother given the same overwrought treatment that tinges the whole film.

Spacey certainly looks and sounds like Darin, but his dry downtime performance sometimes shows the actor peeking through.  One must admire the actor's generosity, though, particularly in sharing the big tap dancing finale with young costar Ullrich.  Bosworth isn't as remarkable a physical transformation as Hollywood's "Gidget," but the young actress does a fine job showing the sheltered actress come into her own, then use booze as a painkiller when her husband's ambition threatens to overwhelm their marriage.  Blethyn is period perfect as a song and dance vet, but Aaron overacts as the unrefined Nina.  Bob Hoskins ("Maid in Manhattan") adds warmth as Nina's husband Charlie, a father figure to Darin.  Greta Scacchi ("The Player") is amusing as Sandra's possessive and disapproving ('You should have paid more attention to that Rock Hudson') mother Mary.

The production itself is first rate, designed by period specialist Andrew Laws ("Down with Love") and brightly photographed by Eduardo Serra ("Girl with the Pearl Earring").  Costumes (Ruth Myers, "Connie and Carla") pop with color as much as the locations where Berlin is a surprise and successful stand-in for New York, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills.


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