Sunday, February 21, 2016

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Director: Kevin Spacey                                    Writers: Kevin Spacey & Lewis Colick
Film Score: Christopher Slaski                        Cinematography: Eduardo Serra
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Bob Hoskins and Caroline Aaron

There were two major musical biopics that came out in 2004. The first was the most successful, Ray by Taylor Hackford, the story of Ray Charles. The second . . . not so much. It’s not as if it didn’t have potential, but Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea, the story of the life of Bobby Darin, just isn’t very good. And that’s not necessarily a knock against the film. In many ways it’s an impressive endeavor and the screenplay itself should have been nominated for an Oscar that year, especially considering the winner was the rather lame Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Spacey wrote and directed, both of which he does an above-average job on, but where the film really fails is in his taking on the lead in the film playing Darin. The film apparently took five years for Spacey to get the financial backing to produce, but in that time he aged another half a decade. Never a young looking man even in his youth, by this time Spacey was an already ancient forty-five years old and every year showed on him, especially as he was attempting to play a man in his mid-twenties who died at age thirty-seven. Even the Golden Gate Bridge couldn’t suspend that much disbelief. And there were some great actors cast in the film along side him, but the fact that the story is told exclusively from Darin’s point of view meant that he was in every scene. The irony is, the gorgeous Gretta Scacchi was cast as the mother of Darin’s wife Sandra Dee, and yet she is actually a year younger than Spacey. It’s a lamentable Achilles heal in what otherwise could have been a fascinating picture.

The film begins with Spacey as Darin backstage at a performance at the Copacabana. He is announced and begins singing “Mack the Knife,” but when he sees a small boy behind the rear curtain he inexplicably tells the band to quit. In front of a roomful of people he says he wants to do it again, something never done in nightclub performances. Only gradually is it revealed to the audience through his agent, John Goodman, that this is actually a film production, Darin telling his life story, a film within a film. The boy is William Ulrich as the young Bobby, telling his older self that he needs to start the film earlier, as a child. Born in New York, Darin’s mother encouraged him to be a performer, and looking out into the street he sees himself as Spacey dancing a production number. Later, he works his way up from the bottom, with the support of his brother in law, Bob Hoskins, treading a fine line between sycophant and supporter. At Atlantic records he scores a couple of late-fifties teen hits like “Splish Splash,” but dreams of bigger things, being a performer in the Sinatra mold. His early success leads to film roles and he meets Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee on set in Italy and falls in love. Eventually his success lands him at the coveted Copacabana and several residencies in Las Vegas where he becomes a headlining entertainer. But when Robert Kennedy is shot, and he learns the secret about his real parentage, he tosses everything to embrace a late-sixties ethos that bombs on stage. Eventually, however, he returns to his nightclub performances, singing his protest songs to the end.

Throughout the film, Ulrich appears as his alter ego and their brief conversations center around the crises in his life, including a weak heart which he had since childhood. The idea for a film on Darin’s life had been in the works for twenty years, but the rights finally ended up in Spacey’s hands and he immediately began rewriting an earlier screenplay by Lewis Colick, which he sanitized greatly by eliminating all of the darker episodes in the singer’s life. But the conceit of the film is it is the story that Darin himself is filming, so it works as something of a surrealistic look at the entertainer. There are still the soap opera episodes with drugs and Dee’s alcoholism, but unlike most biopics it’s a welcome relief not to focus on them. Two other production number grace the film, but again it is Spacey himself--a solid dancer and singer--who ultimately doesn’t work. The musical arrangements are good, based on Darin’s original stage shows, but Spacey also does the singing himself as well, which fails to capture the excitement of Darin’s voice. And all the while there’s still simply no escaping the fact that Spacey is TOO OLD for the part, something he’d been hearing since 1994, when he was only thirty-five. Of course the family of Bobby Darin had nothing but enthusiasm for the film, which makes sense considering how uncontroversial Spacey made it, but generally audiences and critics were luke warm. Beyond the Sea is a fascinating idea, and the screenplay is ingenious, but ultimately Spacey’s triple-threat performance was just one threat too many.

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