After 40 years, Judge George Hatch now realizes that it was a faux pas to present the queen of the hop with a bouquet of artificial flowers.
"You don't want to just get into the act. You want to be the act…Fabian."—Jimmy Durante
"Jimmy, I'm Bobby Darin."
Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song is a terrific documentary that originally aired on PBS in 1998 and has finally made it to DVD. It is an entertaining and well-edited pastiche of Bobby Darin's career from his first television appearances on The Jackie Gleason Hour and The Dick Clark Show (soon to be known as American Bandstand) through 1973, when he passed away at the early age of 37.
Facts of the Case
Born in Harlem as Walden Robert Cassotto, Bobby Darin was raised in the Bronx by his mother, Polly, and older sister, Mina, both of whom nourished his instinctive musical talents. When he was eight years old, his heart tissue was permanently scarred by a serious bout with rheumatic fever. He overheard the doctor tell his mother, "The boy probably won't live to be 21."
Dick Clark says, "We all know we're going to die. Bobby knew he had a shorter time, but he never slowed down." Tony Orlando remembers that Bobby's philosophy was, "Love life. Enjoy it…whatever is coming your way." Darin's son, Dodd, felt that Bobby was fueled by the sole conviction, "Let's do it now. There may be no tomorrow." To say Bobby Darin was a driven man is to put it mildly. His somber acceptance of a literal "death sentence" could have emotionally crippled him for life. Instead, it inspired an aggressive, self-motivated confidence that would make him a star by age 23.
"Once in a Lifetime"
Bobby Darin's big break came in March 1956 when he sang "Rock Island Line" on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Session,which, at the time, constituted half of The Jackie Gleason Hour. Bobby later related an amusing anecdote to talk show host David Frost: "I learned [the song] on a Tuesday…and then did The Jackie Gleason Show on Saturday evening. I really wasn't sure of the lyrics, so I devised my own [cue cards], which were on the palm of my hand. At the end of the show, everyone knew what I was doing, of course, except my sweet Mama, who said, 'You were wonderful. I never saw anyone use his hands like that before.'"
Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song delivers this performance intact, and it's one of the best on a DVD that is crammed with the singer's classics. "Rock Island Line" is an up-tempo song with complex lyrics, and we can see Bobby sneaking looks at his palms. Even better, when he spreads his hands to the audience, his "crib notes" are in plain sight! This chapter is a must for fans of both Darin and early live television, when quick thinking and improvisation could make or break a performer.
"Higher and Higher"
Bobby Darin is quoted as saying that he wanted "to be a legend at 25." Well, by the time he was 23, he had managed to score three of Billboard's Top Ten hits with "Splish Splash," "Dream Lover," and "Beyond the Sea." Although his manager warned him that his swing arrangement of a song from Brecht and Weill's Three Penny Opera "was not likely to be a big smash," Darin's classic rendition of "Mack the Knife" caught the attention of teenagers and adults alike. It became the number-one best-selling single in 1959, and it earned him two well-deserved Grammy Awards.
Darin was also making appearances on a number of TV variety shows, including An Evening with Jimmy Durante. Darin walks on stage, in long-shot, doing a knockout impression of Durante and is soon joined by "The Schnozz" himself. They go through some very funny shtick, and Bobby proves to be a terrific comic foil and straight man for Durante. Then Bobby teaches him how to add some swing by "snappin' and tappin'" Durante's signature song, "Ink-a-Dink-a-Do." (And you must see and hear Durante's version of Darin's "Splish Splash"!)
Bobby became a regular on such popular programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dinah Shore Show, and The Kraft Music Hall. On this DVD, Bobby joins Judy Garland for a jazzy duet of "Lonesome Road," and they play off each other beautifully. Here's another example of a talented newcomer "swapping lyrics" with an old pro, and Bobby matches Judy's delivery so perfectly that they blend as a whole. Just watch Garland's face as they start to ad-lib and bring some swing to this song. During one of the many rough times in her career, you can see in her eyes the faith, support, trust, and admiration she had for Bobby.
As a relentless entertainer striving for legendary status, Darin premiered The Bobby Darin Show in 1973. The highlight of this series must have been an all-music evening with only Bobby and Miss Peggy Lee (Peggy Lee Singing at Her Best). Now that's a special I'd love to see make it to DVD.
George Burns succinctly recounts that in 1959, "I heard about this boy and I asked him to come in and sing a song for me. He sang a song, and I took him right to Vegas to open for me." Ultimately, Bobby became a Las Vegas headliner in his own right, and Hollywood was in his future.
Having had the same recording agent, Bobby Darin met and became enamored of Connie Francis (Where the Boys Are), one of the top pop female singers of the 1960s. In Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song, Connie tells of their ill-fated romance: "Bobby was incredibly talented, and we were drawn to each other. But my father didn't like him. He told our agent that unless you stop managing Darin, you're through managing Connie Francis. We performed on the same shows and even did some duets together. But that's all that ever became of our relationship."
Darin had been flirting with acting by taking small, uncredited parts in films like The Sad Sack (1957) and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960). Then he scored a lead role in Come September opposite Sandra Dee (Imitation of Life). During the filming, they fell in love and were married in December 1960. They costarred in two other films, If a Man Answers and That Funny Feeling (Bobby wrote the songs for the former and composed the entire score for the latter), but their careers made for a rocky romance that ended in a divorce seven years later.
Bobby Darin, however, continued to make an impression in Hollywood, most notably in the ensemble cast of Don Siegel's spectacular war drama Hell is for Heroes and in Pressure Point, in which he played a haunted racist being psychoanalyzed by Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night). His performance in Captain Newman, M.D. earned him both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1964.
Bobby Darin had now secured a place in nearly every entertainment niche, but storm clouds were roiling, and two earthshaking thunderclaps would shatter his world in 1968.
Bobby's son, Dodd, talks about his father's close relationship with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and what an influence the man had on Bobby. "They often flew together on Kennedy's private plane. He always asked my father to bring along his guitar and sing [Kennedy's] favorite song, 'Blowin' in the Wind'…When Kennedy was assassinated, the world Bobby had known just crumbled around him." Hundreds of thousands of mourners turned out for RFK's wake and funeral, and many people had to be turned away. Dodd says, "Bobby slept all night next to the coffin, until it was draped with the American flag the next morning before burial. My father was never the same person I'd known after that."
In the same year, Bobby learned that his "mother," Polly, was actually his grandmother and that his "sister," Mina, was, in fact, his biological mother. "It was the 1940s," Dodd says, "and Mina was pregnant and unmarried. To avoid a scandal, Polly packed them up and moved until the baby was born. When they returned to the Bronx, Bobby was raised as Mina's brother." So Bobby never knew who his real father was, though it had been rumored that the man "was in prison or dead." Combined with RFK's assassination, this shocking personal revelation proved too much for Bobby to handle; he became introspective and briefly withdrew from the public eye.
"As Long As I'm Singing"
But Bobby "was born to entertain…and he reinvented himself as many times as he needed to." He changed his appearance from a natty suit, tie, and vest to more informal attire, and he gave his own unique and deeply felt covers of songs like "Bridge over Troubled Water" and "If I Were a Carpenter." By this time, the country was split over the war in Vietnam, and Bobby identified with the peace movement. In 1971, he composed "A Simple Song of Freedom," a gentle Dylan-esque ode to the ideals he believed in.
Come and sing a simple song of freedom
In 1973, Bobby started feeling ill, and he knew time was running out. On Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song, Dick Clark notes that, "On one of his last NBC shows, you'll notice he keeps slapping his hand against his thigh because his circulation wasn't working." Sadly, we can see this in the accompanying clip. But one of Bobby's colleagues points out what a trouper he was. "Somebody started that old show biz maxim 'The show must go on.' Bobby believed in it, and he finished nine contracted performances—while he was sick!" In December of 1973, Bobby Darin endured his second open-heart surgery, but later died in the recovery room.
Bobby said, "My goal is to be remembered as a human being and as a great performer." You'll see both sides of this man on Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song.
The titles included on this disc are:
• "Splish Splash"
Considering the source material, Kultur's transfer of Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song is a mixed bag, but decidedly on the plus side. The color excerpts look terrific, and most of the black-and-white sequences are far better than average. Some archival footage is blurred and so high-contrasted that it has the look of a charcoal sketch, but these clips are few and far between. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is so good it sounds as close as you can get to Bobby Darin's remastered CDs. Kultur has kindly broken down this one-hour show into 29 chapters (!), allowing the viewer to jump to favorite songs.
I suggest that you immediately go to Chapter 20 and watch Bobby's rousing rendition of "Higher and Higher." With a full orchestra and back-up singers, Bobby still commands the stage using his voice, energy, and body language to bring the song to "higher" levels with each new chorus. And you'll see some of his most inspired and smoothest footwork. Just imagine a combination of James Brown, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Fred Astaire.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"It's the song, not the singer," Bobby said, "and I won't go on stage without a great song."
Honestly, I have to disagree with him on this point, and I'll cite "Mack the Knife" as an example. This song had been relegated to theater and opera aficionados. Bobby's swing version was inscribed on vinyl and released on radio, where it went into the homes of millions of listeners. Today, when you mention "Mack the Knife," everyone associates the song with Bobby Darin, not with Three Penny Opera. And director Robert Redford used Darin's version to accurately set the time frame and tone of his film Quiz Show.
No, Bobby, it is the singer…not the song that touches people. You've presented the evidence yourself on this DVD.
A surprising amount of biographical information is condensed into Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song, but it doesn't overwhelm the standout musical numbers. I particularly liked the chapter in which he's composing "Rainin'." Bobby hadn't yet written the lyrics, but he teaches his band the melody by strumming his guitar, tapping out the beat with his foot, and simply singing "Dum, ba-dum, ba-dada-dada," while precisely cuing the musicians as to what he wants from them. This clip is representative of Bobby Darin's commitment to perfection
Along with the narration by Keith Olbermann, brief interviews with Darin's show business friends and acquaintances, and taped comments by "The Mack" himself, this aptly subtitled documentary is packed with clips and live performances that emphasize Darin's legendary talent and stage presence. And they do, indeed, go "beyond the song."
I find Bobby Darin—Beyond the Song not guilty! But I do sentence Bobby to "swing" forever.
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