I am obligated to take Bobby Darin’s so-called greatness on faith, as there is nothing I’ve ever heard to separate him from any other two-bit lounge act, especially from an era where such men were produced in mass quantities. And now that I’ve seen Kevin Spacey’s vain, pompous, self-righteous biopic (about himself, mind you, not simply Darin), my faith has been betrayed in full. Darin always wanted to be bigger than Sinatra, but so does William Hung and just about every other tone-deaf creep who crawls across the American Idol stage. Darin had the will, and the gall, and the tough-guy persona to help craft an image of success, but must we be forced to submit to the sort of self-styled legend responsible for such world-turning hits as “Splish Splash?” Even “Mack the Knife,” a toe-tapping tune I’ll admit, is little more than a decent pop confection. Fine, Darin crooned, dressed the part, and wowed audiences from the Copa to Vegas, but so have such kitsch specialties as Wayne Newton and Robert Goulet. I don’t hear the typewriters clicking to write those screenplays. Simply put, this is a film completely out of step with its subject; it’s like devoting Gandhi-like production values to a story about your kooky neighbor. In fact, had Darin not died from heart problems at the tender age of 37, it is quite likely that he would have faded away into irrelevance and “where is he now?” pop trivia. Or perhaps he would have eventually shot himself in the head after even the denture-wearing blue-hairs stopped plunking down a sawbuck for “Darin Live!” and some cheap buffet on the Strip.
Beyond the Sea is a bit disappointing, not in the sense that it didn’t live up to any perceived greatness, but rather because it didn’t crash and burn with enough intensity. Rather than securing the label of “camp classic,” it merely limps along as “better than expected” or “somewhat guilty.” After all, who wouldn’t want to watch Spacey’s ego set afire, what with his silly notion that he was ready to star, direct, write, and sing! Hell, the man even released a soundtrack album and has taken the whole show on tour! Spacey is practically begging to be attacked with full force. From all accounts, Spacey has a pretty good voice, but even pure vocal heaven wouldn’t be enough to save these elevator and grocery store classics from being dated curiosities. If anyone wonders why the 1960s hit so fast and hard, take a look at mainstream music during the Eisenhower era. And Darin did little to change things, although he did re-invent himself as a hippie folk singer as the flower decade closed. But we also need to remember that Darin did so only after the world told his kind to get fucked, and he hobbled around without ambition or a place to go. So rather than change music in any lasting way, he followed the latest trend and fell flat on his face. The film would have us believe that his groovy anthem came after much soul-searching and artistic sacrifice, but the lyrics are so painfully banal and simpleminded in the face of the real revolution, that one can only hope Darin’s heart gives out before further embarrassment.
So as the film takes us from the isolated, bed-ridden childhood of young Bobby (he had rheumatic fever), to his big splash, we watch a middle-aged fool twist and jig like a teenager. Spacey tries to head off the criticism by making a film within a film (Darin is dead, narrating a movie about his life), but we never forget that Spacey is Spacey. And when he woos bubbleheaded Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), it’s revolting in a Woody Allen-beds-down-with-Julia-Roberts sort of way. Spacey tries to liven the proceedings with some old school musical numbers (Darin declares his love by singing “Beyond the Sea”), but he accomplishes little more than confirming long-held rumors that he’s strikingly gay. He’s just a little too “wow” with those moves, after all. Nevertheless, the Darin/Dee connection, supposedly one of pop culture’s most teddy bear-ish couplings, never registers as anything other than a forced studio move: “Dee, your career is skidsville, see? Marry this up-and-comer and you’ll go places. And you, Darin, there’s this sweet dame, see? Cute as a button. You need the wife and the family and all that if you want to move up the charts. Let’s do this thing and sell some records.” Maybe Dee was and is this vacuous, but I find it hard to imagine a less interesting “star.” Did she really have an impact on the culture? But who am I to judge those folks from long ago — we live with our sins (Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, the simp Simpson sisters) just fine, thank you.
Bobby does his rise-fall-rise thing pretty well, and even has one of those “moments” that seems to send him off the deep end. That moment (cinematically speaking) is the 1964 Oscars, where he loses Best Supporting Actor for Captain Newman, M.D. to Melvyn Douglas in Hud. We are only treated to one brief scene from Darin’s film (one of those “on-set” moments), which is just as well as it looks to be a melodramatic mess (I believe he’s yelling something like “No! Not the bombs! My eyes! I can’t see!” while on the shrink’s couch). But dammit all, Darin was robbed, and we’re supposed to see how America just wasn’t ready for Darin’s genius. He coulda had class, I tell ya, and only the jealous bastards kept him from Oscars, fame, legitimacy, and lasting power. Instead, he feels sorry for himself, Dee keeps drinking, and Spacey takes a page from Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer by forcing his hero to leave it all behind, grow some funky facial hair, and write music by the beach. Darin gets all idealistic, too, and signs up for Robert Kennedy’s campaign right before he gets shot. Darin even hints at a run for public office himself, which seems less ridiculous when you realize that Ronald Reagan went straight from the chimps to the California governor’s mansion.
Darin gives one final show, the crowd erupts like they’ve seen Elvis, and he runs straight from the stage to the hospital, where he quickly dies on the table. Spacey clearly believes in Darin’s genius (perhaps he’s always wanted to be Darin), but that fails to translate from his mind to our hearts. We’ve seen all this before, only without the panting and pleading. Spacey wants us to have a good time, but we’re never given a reason to care. As it is, Darin was just another kid from the projects who wanted it all, tasted the good life, and left us too soon because the world can’t take too much brilliance at one time. It’s amazing that Darin could do anything with such a weak heart, but so much time passes where it appears that he’s fit for a marathon or two, that his “condition” becomes just another device to jack up the drama when it’s most needed. But this is Kevin’s show; he’s in charge and he’d rather not take any questions from the audience. He’s Bobby Darin, and we’re just along for the ride.