Beyond the Sea (2004): Kevin Spacey’s Biopic of Bobby Darin, Starring Kevin Spacey

A vanity project, Beyond the Sea is more about Kevin Spacey, the producer, director, writer, star, and even singer, than about its nominal subject, the late singer-actor Bobby Darin.
This chutzpah project, an ego-trip that made Spacey so high that he has even taken to do live performances of Darin’s music.

Structurally, this biopicture is a train wreck of massive proportions, a film that throws into its mix randomly chosen events from Darin’s life. The end result is a series of arbitrary vignettes tied together by an extremely loose narrative.

For a number of reasons, it’s debatable whether Darin deserves a comprehensive, full-length biopicture. First and foremost, Darin’s life was short–he died of heart attack in 1973 at the age of 37. Second, as projected onscreen, Darin’s life feels like a standard rags-to-riches sage, yet another version of a poor boy who achieves fame and success at a young age only to lose both quickly (even before his untimely death).

One of the ground rules of the biographical genre, whether accurate and faithful to the actual life, is that it should illuminate its subject’s life and art. But, alas, Beyond the Sea doesn’t tell you anything you did know about Darin from other sources. Nor does it offer any fresh insights about already-known facts.

The big mystery is why did Darin and Sandra Dee’s son, Dodd, give his support and approval to a project that presents both of his parents in a negative light. Darin comes across as a mildly talented but arrogant and self-aggrandizing artist, and it really trivializes and diminishes Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) as an actress and woman.

Actors who turn to film direction tend to favor performance over story, logic, coherence, and other important properties. Just look at the movies made by Mel Gibson, Tim Robbins, John Turturro, and Sean Penn. Spacey follows this pattern, and because he’s the writer-star, he favors himself over any other element in the film, or the real story upon which it is based.

As much as I disliked De-Lovely, the biopicture about Cole Porter that’s also shallow and disjointed, Beyond the Sea is inferior to it in every respect. At least Irwin Winkler found an original way to present the music; he also coaxed an excellent performance from Kevin Kline as Porter.

Unfortunately, in the first part of the movie, Spacey looks too old to play Darin as a young man. And it doesn’t help that in the course of the film, Spacey hardly ages at all. So much for credibility.

The film has a fake, theatrical look. Though many acts are set in a nightclub, Beyond the Sea lacks the stylized theatricality of a movie musical like Cabaret. Inexcusably, the movie was shot in Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios, which means it lacks verisimilitude and authenticity. Why not take advantage of the real locations: New York’s Bronx, where the story begins, and Los Angeles, where most of it is set.

Spacey has surrounded himself with top-notch craftsmen: cinematographer Eduardo Serra (who shot last year’s The Girl With a Pearl Earring), production designer Andrew Laws, and costume designer Ruth Myers. Since all of them have done excellent work in the past for other directors, my conclusion is that they were misguided by Spacey, the creator of this train wreck.

Gimmicky, Beyond the Sea unfolds as a film-within-film, with Darin making a movie about him. In the first scene, Darin is at the Cocoanut Grove, celebrating his tenth anniversary in showbiz. He interrupts his performance to tell the audience (in the club and the movie house as well) that he’s making a movie about himself.

Cut to the young Darin, who’s watching the older Darin from behind the curtain. The action then switches to Bronx, New York, and Bobby’s childhood. The young Bobby lives with his mom, Polly (an over-the-top Brenda Blethyn), his much older sister Nina (Woody Allen’s regular Caroline Aaron), and brother-in-law Charlie (Brit Bob Hoskins). If this version is to be believed, Bobby nearly died as an adolescent, when he suffered from rheumatic fever. Miraculously, he survives. Soon, he sets his goal high, wishing to become the next Sinatra, if not bigger.

With the patience and support of his friend and manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman) and musical director Dick Behrke (Peter Cincotti), Darin overcomes obstacles and a few flops, before making it big, first as a popular teen with the tune Splish, Splash and other bubblegum numbers, like Queen of the Hop. However, he really hits the jackpot when he begins to perform songs like the jazz-influenced Mack the Knife, his smash hit, which became his signature piece, and Somewhere Beyond the Sea.

The film’s dialogue is banal. For example, upset by her daughter’s engagement to Darin, Dee’s mother, Mary (a miscast Greta Scacchi), a stage mom a la Gypsy, tells Dee, You should have concentrated more on Rock Hudson. Darin, Dee, Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida appeared together in the popular 1961 romantic comedy, Come September.

Sandra Dee, a bigger star than Darin in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a result of such movies as Imitation of Life, Gidget, and A Summer’s Place, comes across as an insecure, masochistic girl. She repeatedly tells Darin that she’s aware of their intellectual incompatibility–she lacks his intelligence, sophistication, and style.

The film’s worst, most clichéd scene depicts Darin’s losing the Supporting Actor Oscar, for Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), a seriocomic WWII melodrama, in which he played a shell-shocked soldier treated by army psychiatrist Gregory Peck. Utterly hysterical, he throws a tantrum. Never mind that the winner that year, the far superior actor Melvyn Douglas for Hud, deserved to win.

Gradually, the movie’s ebullient tone changes into anger and bitterness, when Sandra Dee becomes a has-been in Hollywood, a victim of changing tastes in movies and stars. Darin himself realizes that his career has suddenly become, to use his own words, “irrelevant.”

There’s very little fun to be had, and I don’t want to be too much of a spoiler and reveal the biggest secret of the film–and Darin’s life. As a movie, Beyond the Sea goes from being earnest to being wacky and tacky. The only side benefit of this film is that Darin’s great songs will be re-released and reach new appreciative audiences.

It’s too bad that the picture is such a mess for Beyond the Sea could have thrown light on an interesting, transitional era in American music history. Teen idol Darin was a contemporary of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, just before the rise of the Beatles, who forever changed the musical scene.

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