Lionsgate // 2004 // 118 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 25th, 2010
In the era of cool, Bobby Darin was the soundtrack.
It took a long time for the story of Bobby Darin to make it to the big screen. Planning for a Bobby Darin biopic began all the way back in 1987, and as the project changed, evolved, fell off the radar and swooped back on again, it attracted and lost a wide variety of showbiz folks including Bruce Willis, Barry Levinson, Paul Schrader, Leonardo DiCaprio, and James Toback. At long last, the project fell into the hands of Kevin Spacey, who had been eager to be involved with the film ever since hearing about it. Spacey had been a huge fan of Darin's music when he was growing up, and was excited by the prospect of helping bring it to life in a film.
The problem was this: by the time the movie was filming in 2004, Spacey was 44 years old, which was older than Darin ever lived to be and considerably older than Darin was in his prime. The studios were hesitant about letting Spacey play the role; they wanted someone younger. Still, Spacey was intent on making his dream project come alive, and equally intent on playing the title role himself. The film debuted to rather disappointing reviews, with some criticizing the movie's awkward structure and others taking shots at Spacey's seeming vanity in playing Darin himself.
No, Beyond the Sea isn't one of the great music biopics (it compares rather unfavorably to Ray, which came out the same year), but it is a very compelling one that tells the Bobby Darin story in an intriguing way. The film opens with Darin on a movie set, shooting a movie about his own life. "You're too old to play the part," someone says, in a clear reference to Spacey's acceptance of the role. "How can you be too old to play yourself?" Bobby's manager (Bob Hoskins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) says reassuringly. Then Bobby meets the kid playing the young version of Bobby in the movie, and they wander off on a trail of distant memories, mixing and matching the details of Darin's life into a fantastical, semi-chronological musical ride.
This effect works, because we don't feel that we're watching a dramatized account of Bobby Darin's life so much as we're watching a dramatization of a dramatization of Bobby Darin's life. On that odd metatextual level, the film works well enough, buoyed along by a never-ending supply of genuinely terrific music. Even by musical biopic standards, Beyond the Sea contains an awful lot of songs, filling up a good 50% of the running time with singing and dancing. All of this is done so well and with such energetic flair; it becomes fairly easy to forgive the dramatic moments that wobble a bit.
Spacey sings all of the songs himself, and though he doesn't sound entirely like Darin, he has a terrific singing voice, so it's all good. I refer you again to the metatextual nature of this thing. Though the soundtrack is dominated by the sort of swinging standards that Darin is known for ("Mack the Knife," "Artificial Flowers," "Beyond the Sea," "Charade," etc.), we also get a little bit of his early rock n' roll stuff ("Splish-Splash") and some of the stuff from his late-era career as a political activist ("Come and Sing a Simple Song of Freedom"). Spacey handles it all with aplomb, looking genuinely enthralled to have the opportunity to sink his teeth into these memorable numbers. In fact, he enjoyed performing the songs so much that the release of the film was accompanied by a concert tour of Spacey performing Darin tunes.
Dramatically, the first half of the film works better than the second, as it focuses on Darin's emerging career and his relationship with Sandra Dee. As portrayed in the film, Darin seems to have been an impulsive risk-taker from start to finish, which worked considerably better for him earlier than it did later. He became a rock n' roll star, then turned his back on rock n' roll to sing increasingly outdated standards. He was told that marriage to a teenage girl would be a foolish move, but he married Sandra Dee anyway. He even leapt into the field of acting and earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Captain Newman, M.D.. The film breezes through these events with a joyful energy, but when it enters the more troubled part of Darin's life (when his career tanked, his health got worse and his marriage started faltering), it becomes slightly sluggish and aimless. Too much time is spent on Darin's soul-searching, as the film never really manages to give us much additional insight into his life during that era other than, "he was upset because things were so bad."
The supporting cast is okay, but honestly I feel like most of the supporting players have too little to do. Bob Hoskins' role primarily consists of giving Darin words of support and affirmation, which doesn't really seem quite worthy of an actor of Hoskins' talent. John Goodman mysteriously vanishes for a pretty good chunk of the film, never really getting to do anything too interesting. Brenda Blethyn also has too little screen time to make a big impression as Bobby's mother. The only supporting player who really gets a substantial part is Bosworth, who proves convincing and capable as Sandra Dee. It's not a great performance; but it's a solid one.
The disc is more or less exactly the same as the one released a few years ago, containing the exact same extras (a commentary with Spacey and producer Arthur Friedman, a making-of featurette and a handful of interviews) and what seems to be the exact same transfer. The only new addition to this set is the compilation CD being included with all of these "Music Makers" DVD releases, containing songs by Darin, Sammy Davis Jr. and a few others.
While it's easy to view Beyond the Sea through a jaded lens, those willing to submit to its charms will be in for a fun yet flawed look at the life and music of Bobby Darin. Worth a rental, though this new set doesn't offer anything new of value.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Bonus CD