Beyond the Sea Review
By Shawn McKenzie 12/29/2004
Virtually everyone has told me that Beyond the Sea was a vanity project for Kevin Spacey, but I don’t care. Spacey directed, produced, co-wrote (with Lewis Colick), sang in (arranged with musical producer Phil Ramone and musical director John Wilson), and starred in this biopic about the legendary Bobby Darin. While I’m not as enamored with Darin as I was with Ray Charles in his biopic Ray, I liked the swingin’ cat. I’ve performed “Mack the Knife” a few times in karaoke bars, complete with the swagger that the song calls for. Unfortunately, for me at least, the movie didn’t wow me in the way I had hoped it would as a fan of Darin.
The movie starts in a confusing manner, with Darin (Spacey) trying to explain why he is playing himself in a biopic about his life. Just so some people don’t get confused, let me clear up a few things: first, Darin never made a movie about himself (his last movie was Happy Mother’s Day, Love George.) Second, Darin jokes about playing himself as a younger man, despite being 37 years old (Spacey himself is 45 years old, so it may just be an in-joke.) Finally, they gave a disclaimer at the end of the movie stating that the events in the movie were moved out of order and omitted completely, which I felt was a cop-out, but more on that later.
Since the movie was structured as a movie within a movie, I’ll start with the beginning of the “movie” in it. Young 7-year-old Walden Robert “Bobby” Cassotto (William Ullrich) grew up expecting a death sentence. His doctor, Dr. Andretti (Michael Byrne), told him and his mother, Polly (Brenda Blethyn), that he had rheumatic fever that had permanently damaged his heart, and he was not expected to make it to age fifteen. Polly and his older sister Nina Cassotto Maffia (Caroline Aaron), along with Nina’s husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins), did not take Bobby’s sickness lying down. Polly, an old-fashioned vaudevillian, cared for Bobby (since his father, Sam Cassado, was a gangster and had died before Bobby was born) and taught the boy the love of music, allowing him to be proficient in several instruments, which made it possible for him to beat the odds. He told Life magazine later that he vowed he would become a legend by the age of 25, playing the Copa and someday becoming more famous than Frank Sinatra. He beat the odds, and at the age of 20, Bobby (Spacey at the age of “20”) went on the road with his band. His name gave him problems, since it was considered a little too “ethnic,” so he changed it to Bobby Darin (a burnt-out Mandarin restaurant sign gave him the idea for the name, since only the “darin” in the sign lit up.) Soon after that, in 1958, Bobby was signed to Atco Records. Ahmet Ertegun (Tayfun Bademsoy), the co-founder of Atlantic Records, the parent company of Atco, produced his first big hit “Splish Spash.” Along with his best friend and manager Steve “Boom Boom” Blauner (John Goodman), his musical director Dick Behrke (Peter Cincotti), and his press agent David Gershenson (Matt Rippy), Bobby took on the musical world. He had many hits as a pop singer and writer, including “Dream Lover” and “Queen of the Hop,” but he longed to take on the type of material that Sinatra did. In 1959, he took a chance on recording an album of pop standards called That’s All, which included “Beyond the Sea” and “Mack the Knife” (from the movie The Threepenny Opera), and the gamble paid off big. “Mack the Knife” went to number one for nine weeks and Bobby won two Grammys (for Best New Artist of 1959 and Record of the Year for “Mack the Knife.”) Since he had conquered the world of music, he turned to acting. After appearing in a few cameo roles in 1960, he appeared in his first major movie role in 1961’s Come September. One of the movie’s stars, 16-year-old Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), caught his eye, but her overprotective mother, Mary Duvan (Greta Scacchi), forbade it. He continued to woo Sandra, eventually marrying her and taking her to Beverly Hills. They made two other movies together, 1962’s If a Man Answers and 1965’s That Funny Feeling. In the meantime, he continued to tour on the road, eventually landing his lifelong gig at the Copacabana. The Copa’s owner, Jules Podell (Gary Whelan), objected to a black comedian named George Kirby (Amadeus Martin-Reid) as the opening act, but Bobby insisted. Back in the world of acting, he made a few more movies, including John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues, State Fair with Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes, and Hubert Cornfeld’s Pressure Point with Sidney Poitier. In 1963, he made David Miller’s Captain Newman, M.D. with Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, and Angie Dickinson. He ended up receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars for that role, which he lost to Melvyn Douglas for the movie Hud (of which Douglas didn’t even show up for.) Bobby and Sandra’s marriage had been rocky before, but his loss at the Oscars was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They filed for divorce soon after, in 1967, though they don’t mention the word “divorce” anywhere in the movie. With his movie and music career dwindling, he became more politically active. He started singing protest folk songs, one of which was Tim Hardin’s “If I Had a Hammer” (Bobby’s last top 10 hit, in 1966) and “Simple Song of Freedom” (which was a #50 hit for Hardin.) He also toured as “Bob Darin” for a while, and refused to sing “Mack the Knife,” meeting with booing crowds expecting to see the nightclub singer. He campaigned passionately for Presidential Democratic nominee Robert Kennedy, until he heard over the radio that Kennedy had been assassinated. Kennedy’s death, coupled with a huge secret told to him by his sister Nina (I won’t tell you the secret, but if you are a fan of Darin or you watch a lot of VH1, you already know it), made him disillusioned. He packed up everything he owned, left Sandra and their only child Dodd (played by Enrique Alberto Saunders at 6 years old and Curtis Victor at 11 years old), and moved to Big Sur to revaluate his life. Charlie, who had been like a father to Bobby, gave him a wristwatch and somehow convinced him to go back to Las Vegas. He does just that, which led him to get his own summer replacement show on NBC, which was unfortunately cancelled after one season. His childhood illnesses caught up with him, and even though a new generation enjoyed his mix of the old material and the new material, he was forced to have to perform with an air tank backstage. The movie ends with his death in doubt, though in real life, Bobby died in December of 1973 after complications following his latest surgery to repair some valves in his heart. He willed that his body be donated to the U.C.L.A. Medical Facility for research, meaning that there was no funeral to mourn his death.
I had a big load of problems with this movie, mainly in its structure. While the plotline was linear than Ray had been (Ray had jumped around and flashed back a little too often), the way it was presented was a bit off. Why Spacey decided to create fictional facts to explain why he was playing a 20-year-old was a mystery to me. One thing that they made a glaring point of was the fact that Darin was losing his hair, forcing him to have to use a toupee often. That might explain the hair loss, but how do you explain the wrinkles belonging to a supposed 20-year-old? What is this…an episode of “Beverly Hills 90210” where all of the “teenagers” in that TV show looked like they were close to being in their 30s? Also, why did Spacey decide to turn the movie into a musical? In Ray, Jamie Foxx sang (or lip-synced essentially) his songs, but there was no musical dance numbers that became part of the plotline. In this movie, when Darin leaves home for the first time, he is greeted by dancers who dance around and with him while he walks down the street (they joke about how that never really happened, but why include the joke and the dance number anyway?) Later on, while wooing Sandra, he sings and does a carefully choreographed montage that explains their dating all the way up to marriage. It was cheesy to say the least. I don’t know why they didn’t show Darin and Sandra getting a divorce, or that he had married another woman in June of 1973, a legal secretary named Andrea Joy Yeager. For some reason, the tacked on disclaimer felt like a cheat to the fans of Darin in an attempt to put a smiley face on his life.
I can’t dog this movie out completely though. First, I thought that it took a tremendous amount of guts for Spacey to pull this off in order to bring Darin to life. Many younger people may not remember him as much as they remember Ray Charles, but both were extremely talented, and it is sad that he couldn’t have been a household name today. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did him right by inducting him into the class of 1990, but beyond old fans or younger music historians like me, Darin is practically unknown.
Spacey himself deserves a lot of credit for most of the roles that he played in this movie. On the acting front, his last movie was The Life of David Gale, and this was just as good, performance-wise. As a producer, it took 17 years to get this project off the ground (originally it was going to be directed by Barry Levinson and starring Leonardo DiCaprio), but Spacey took over the reins himself. Despite the goofy structure, it was a decent screenplay that he co-wrote, which made some sense, once we realized where the story was going. With regards to his singing, I was glad to know that he captured Darin’s style and voice perfectly. Finally, his directing left something to be desired. His only turn at directing was with 1996’s Albino Alligator, which he didn’t star in. Other critics hated it, and I hated it myself as well, though I didn’t have my website up at the time. While this movie wasn’t as boring as that one by a long stretch, the other problems that I had already mentioned about it probably stem from his directing.
I want to point out the other performances in the movie though. Bosworth and Blethyn were excellent as the two leading female performers, but all of the women, especially Aaron and Scacchi, overacted. The others did great, especially Goodman, who I have always thought was primo, even in some of his worst movies.
Beyond the Sea may be considered a vanity project, but with all the passion he put into it, at least it might introduce to a new generation to the music of Bobby Darin. Hey…if Swingers could do it, why couldn’t this movie? I just wish that the movie had been arranged better, allowing the new fans to see all of the important events of his life, not just the bad times that the movie glossed over. This movie might baffle those younger fans, thinking that this is a musical where the hero doesn’t die in the end. Spacey was recently nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, so that at least shows that he is a good actor, but beyond that, I don’t think that this movie is going to get a lot of Oscar lovin’. In the meantime, I’ll be going to my local karaoke bar though to do my own rendition of “Mack the Knife,” and perhaps this movie will start a trend in karaoke bars everywhere too. Maybe I don’t need to be a dream lover no more!
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