According to his own oft repeated account, Kevin Spacey labors under something of an obsession with the singer Bobby Darin, whose life and career inspire the new movie Beyond the Sea. After several years, a number of false starts, and some pre-production difficulties, Spacey ended up collaborating on the script and directing the picture, in which he stars as Darin, singing many of Darin's best known songs and recapitulating a version of the performer's brief, sometimes confused life. Although the film manages to entertain in a relatively workmanlike fashion, it lacks the strength and depth that the basic material should yield, settling instead for a kind of dutiful and superficial attention to its emotional content.
The movie resembles a hundred other musical biographies in its story of a singer's rise to fame and fortune, the usual problems that accompany those much desired objects, and a climactic triumph over adversity. Darin's life, however, differed from most of his peers because he sang and danced in the looming shadow of death.
Stricken in childhood with rheumatic fever that damaged his heart, he was not expected to reach his 15th year. He fooled the doctors, however, and lived to the ripe old age of 37, performing right up to the end.
Spacey tells Darin's story in a mixture of styles, beginning in the middle and proceeding through a series of flashbacks that frequently interrupt the normal narrative. He and other characters provide a voiceover narration in many sequences, explaining what his picture apparently cannot, and patching over gaps in the singer's career.
In addition, he shows the grownup Bobby Darin conversing with his younger self, Bobby Cassotto (William Ullrich), often arguing about the proper interpretation of his personality and life, with the boy instructing the adult in the truth of an event. The child, as Wordsworth said, is father to the man.
The sick young boy benefited from the attention of a doting mother (Brenda Blethyn), who encouraged his love of music and inspired his career. When he changed his name to Bobby Darin, according to the picture, his career took off, and he rapidly became one of the most popular young singers of a time (the 1950s and '60s) when most of the male vocalists seemed to be Italian --- Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Vic Damone, Jerry Vale, etc. He made a number of hit records, sang on television, won numerous awards, and played the Copacabana when that nightclub represented the pinnacle of an entertainer's success.
With the help of his devoted manager, Steve Blauner (John Goodman), Darin also made a career in the movies, even winning an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in Captain Newman, M.D. While working on a film in Italy he fell in love with one of his fellow actors, the 18-year-old Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), pursued her zealously against the wishes of her overbearing mother (Greta Scacchi), and, yes, married her. The singer and the ingénue became the darlings of the movie magazines, the talented and handsome young couple with great careers and the perfect Hollywood marriage, the Ken and Barbie of their time.
In the usual manner of such things, the match progresses downward as the brash, wildly ambitious kid from the Bronx competes with the innocent young woman who played Tammy and Gidget and even some troubled adolescents in the decade that essentially invented the teenager.
Bobby's singing career takes him all over the country, while Sandra reluctantly accompanies him, eventually seeking solace in the bottle while her husband's star glows ever brighter.
Again in the usual manner of the musical biopic Spacey interrupts the narrative to sing some of the trademark songs, several of them written by Darin himself, and demonstrates some talent of his own, moving with some grace and imitating the singer's mellow voice. The picture, however, suffers from a kind of perfunctory approach to its emotional content, conveying little passion and generating no chemistry in the relationship between Darin and Dee. The most convincing emotions derive from the singer's relationship with his sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) and her husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins), which ultimately creates the greatest personal crisis in the film.
The greatest disappointment in Beyond the Sea arises from its failure to exploit its most powerful material, the fatal destiny that stalks Darin and presumably fueled his great ambition. The mysterious birth, the meteoric career, the various and fabulous successes, the fairytale wedding, and the early death should make the singer a cult figure, perhaps even rivaling his contemporary Elvis Presley, whose weird life and squalid end have not precluded him from sainthood.
Spacey, however, passes up the opportunity to turn the life into something rich and different. He chooses instead a bland and curiously flat interpretation, a mildly entertaining musical instead of something approaching tragedy.
Beyond the Sea (PG-13), starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman; written by Kevin Spacey and Lewis Golick; directed by Kevin Spacey. Canandaigua Theatres, Pittsford Plaza