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Bobby Darin: Beyond the Song [DVD]

Bobby Darin

Despite the title, this DVD of Bobby Darin doesn’t go very deep into the man’s biography, psyche, or contribution to the arts. Instead, it’s a cheap and easy compilation of performance clips of Darin, on television and on-stage, interspersed with interviews with contemporaries like Andy Williams and the ageless George Burns, and Darin’s relatives. Darin’s son and brother participate, which suggests that this is the clean, authorized biography of the troubled entertainer. That said, Beyond the Song is still a pretty cool DVD, with lots of entertaining footage of Darin and other celebrities.

The basic, somewhat bizarre, facts of Darin’s career are well documented. Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto in 1936 and suffered from a childhood illness that he knew would considerably shorten his lifespan. This fact spurred him on to early success and by his early twenties, Darin had already recorded Top Ten rock ‘n’ roll hits like “Splish Splash”, “Dreamlover”, and “Beyond the Sea” (all included here). Then Darin expanded his horizons to become a Las Vegas performer and appeal to a wider, adult audience. His rendition of “Mack the Knife” (also included here) from The Threepenny Opera became his first and only number one record. From there Darin went to Hollywood and earned popular and critical praise for his acting (including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) in movies like Captain Newman M.D. (with Gregory Peck) and Pressure Point (with Sidney Poitier). He met and married his co-star from another picture, Sandra Dee, and was considered the heir apparent to Frank Sinatra as the master of hip.

Darin chose to become an adult entertainer during a time of a great youth movement. The black and white footage here of Darin performing with luminaries from older generations like Jimmy Durante and Judy Garland is great — Darin does a dead-on imitation of Durante and coaxes the obviously not quite all-there Garland into using her pipes — and reveals Darin’s connections to past traditions more than his being in the present vogue.

Then something happened. Maybe it was just a cultural shift. But Darin was not content with wide mainstream success. He became an introspective singer-songwriter, concerned with personal and political activism. Darin’s son suggests much of this grew out of a shock in his private life. It was during this time period that Darin learned that the woman he thought was his sister was his mother and the woman he thought was his mother was his grandmother. Darin starts to dress differently, in blue denim instead of a tux, and sheds his Vegas-style image for long hair, sideburns, and a moustache. Darin becomes an active supporter of Robert Kennedy and campaigns with him.

This is where the DVD is most deficient, lacking footage of Darin performing during this period, which arguably was his greatest musically. While Darin’s version of Tim Hardin’s “If I Was a Carpenter” became a hit, less well-known but equally as wonderful are Darin’s versions of Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy” and “Red Balloon” and Mick Jagger/Keith Richard’s “Back Street Girl”. The mid- to late ’60s Darin is conspicuously absent.

The DVD does include a great deal of footage from a 1973 color TV special. As the interviews with personalities like Dick Clark make clear, everyone knew Darin was gravely ill at the time, but they also knew Darin would never slow down. Darin wears a bright blue tux and is back doing his Vegas shtick. Clark points out that Darin shakes his hands in rhythm frequently to keep his circulation going because he is so unhealthy. Watching Darin perform is heartrending. He’s still smiling, giving it all in the old show biz tradition, but Darin’s clearly hurting. Darin died backstage at 37 years-of-age after a show before the year was over. Tony Orlando offers a touching quasi-eulogy as he tells the story of wanting to be Bobby Darin. Orlando shows how he copied Darin’s style at the beginning of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, undulating Darin-like “I’ve done my time, I’m coming home” and narrates how Roger Miller told him he did the same thing at the beginning of “King of the Road”. Orlando does Miller doing Darin — “Trailers for sale or rent” — in the same swinging voice. This delightfully illustrates how pervasive Darin’s influence has been on modern popular music.