Beyond the Sea (2004)

1969-12-31 (Limited release)

Ya know when that shark bites, with his teeth, babe,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
— Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife”

Kevin Spacey looks alternately fatigued and awkward as Bobby Darin. Outfitted with a time-period-perfected array of toupees, golf sweaters, and tuxedos, the actor’s efforts toward putting together his longtime pet project (some have called it a vanity project) are visible in most every frame of Beyond the Sea.

Given at least one of the film’s premises — that singing and dancing is actual work — the existence of its full-on musical numbers, with folks bursting into song and dancing in the street, all done up in vibrant costumes and waving their arms exuberantly, makes charming sense. Such flights of fancy are here rendered as labor, even as they are magically transformed into (welcome) breaks from plot, all gonzo energy and luscious choreography, against fall-away sets and featuring moderately acrobatic dancers. The craning camera, booming orchestra, and brightly smiling performers all go to show the extraordinariness of the very concept of a musical.

And so it is that, amid all this happy production and excitement, Spacey’s Darin is something of anomaly: sickly, fretful, angry, extremely competitive, in particular with his boyhood idol, Frank Sinatra. If he does nothing else, he insists even as a child, Bobby will perform at the Copacabana, and outsell Sinatra to boot. He’s helped along in this endeavor by the usual biopic figures — the harried, supportive mom Polly (Brenda Blethyn); the endlessly loyal and endlessly working class sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) and brother-in-law Charlie (Bob Hoskins); and the devoted, strangely wise manager Steve (John Goodman). Alternately buoyed and battered by his supporting cast, Bobby struggles to find his own voice, to determine who he wants to be.

Born Walden Robert Cassotto, the story goes, Darin suffered as a child with rheumatic fever, which damaged his heart (he died in 1973 at age 37), but instilled in him a crucial ambition and work ethic. He’s inspired in large part by his mother, who insists that he listen to great (pop) music and learn to play the piano. Following his first pop charts triumph with “Splish Splash,” he figures out how to make hits, and the value of pedestrian formula. Seeking stardom, he works in television and nightclubs, the sort of performing that privileges the “latest thing” (which is really the same thing, repackaged) over invention, politics, and self-expression. Still, he’s smart enough to cover “Mack the Knife” in 1959 and then writes and performs “Beyond the Sea” in 1960, both songs that have become identified with his synthetic persona.

Though he revels in his success, Bobby also feels frustrated by industry impositions and fickle audiences, eventually distrusting not only his own instincts, but also the encouragement of his family and friends. He seeks support elsewhere, specifically, in intricate embodiments of the industry he both adores and despises, including the prettiest girl star (Sandra Dee, perfectly played by Kate Bosworth), with whom he costars — as second lead to Rock Hudson — in Come September (1961). The pursuit of this new Hollywood identity entails winning over Sandy’s intimidating stage mom Mary Duvan (Greta Scacchi), a process that brings to the forefront the class schisms between Bobby’s past (Charlie and Nina chew loudly at dinner) and the future he wants — or thinks he wants — so badly.

The couple looks doomed (“I’m married to Tammy!”), and yet it lasts (in real life, legend has it, Sandra Dee has remained dedicated to his memory). Their first night as man and wife makes for one of the film’s oddest, most disturbing, and most compelling scenes, as she fears for her virginity and he agrees never to touch her until she asks, literally placing a sword across the middle of their bed to mark their sides and, no small thing, to dramatize his decency. Bobby is above all else, a fabulous self-promoter.

Beyond the Sea is all about staging — it opens with Darin walking through the back halls and kitchen of the Copa, camera tracking Goodfellas-style — as a PA announces, “We’re walking.” The film goes so far as to remark on its own clever artifice within, quite ineffectively. Partly structured as a film that Bobby’s making about his own life, it includes an early moment when someone notes that he is, after all, too old to “play himself” (Spacey being near 50, this is manifest throughout, especially when he plays the artist as a young man). While Charlie has the right answer-question for this curmudgeon (“How can you be too old to play yourself?”), the note has been struck: the movie can’t quite get out from under its first self-consciousness about this seeming problem.

But while the age business might be mildly diverting, it’s nothing compared to the film’s most off-putting and tired device, Bobby’s exchanges with a little boy version of himself (William Ullrich). Cute and talented, the kid is nonetheless an interruption, advising Bobby on how to make the film, and contending that he “knows” him better than anyone. While the youthful, naïve Bobby is surely resilient and admirable, he’s also annoying.

For all the Bobbys, the show is all that matters; Darin is advised and comes to believe that “People hear what they see” (a good if inadvertent lesson, perhaps, for today’s lip-syncers). This realization hits home for the movie’s Darin after a series of career and personal crises that leave him feeling emotionally and spiritually stranded and quite unsure how to “come back.” He decides to reinvent himself as a folk singer, disillusioned by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (for whom he campaigned) and wanting to protest the war in Vietnam, he conjures a terrifically bad idea of a Vegas show — the newly earnest “Bob” Darin on acoustic guitar and a black gospel choir behind him. The term “tone deaf” doesn’t begin to describe it.