Sept 13th, 2004
BEYOND THE SEA
By Kirk Honeycutt
Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — We may be witnessing the evolution of a new kind of biopic, beginning with the premieres in Cannes this year of films about Cole Porter (“De-Lovely”) and Peter Sellers (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”), which in a Brechtian menage of fantasy, reality and make believe the subject views his life as a show played out on a stage or film set. If so, then “Beyond the Sea” is its first masterwork. In re-imagining the all too brief but meteoric career of singer-actor Bobby Darin, Kevin Spacey, both as star and director, has created a hugely entertaining, highly empathetic portrait of a man for whom music was literally the thing that kept him alive.

Bobby Darin’s name may not ring too many bells with younger audiences. But when “Beyond the Sea” goes into a platform release in November and December, strong reviews will certainly attract Baby Boomers and the whole thing could snowball into a considerable hit for Lions Gate. Certainly, Spacey is in line for major honors and nominations in two categories as he has sweetly realized a dream project on which he has labored so long.

Spacey flat out admires Bobby Darin. He admires him as a performer, as a person driven by an ambition to achieve as much as he can in a short span of time and, most importantly, he admires him as a man, flaws and all. Here he makes a persuasive case that Darin’s achievements should not suffer from neglect. Indeed his signature tune “Mack the Knife” and his hit “Beyond the Sea” are undoubtedly playing on some radio station at any moment of the day.

Right away, Spacey lets us know we are on a soundstage. Spacey’s Darin seems to be directing a movie about himself, a movie he, of course, never made and probably would never have wanted to as he was a man who looked ever forward, not back. Yet his past had a funny way of catching up with him and surprising him.

The young actor (a precocious William Ullrich) who plays Bobby as a boy interrupts the staging to insist the opening is wrong. So the two Bobbys put their heads together and think back to the time when everything changed for Darin. At age 7, rheumatic fever permanently damages his heart and a doctor predicts he will never reach age 15.

This is the time when his mom Polly (Brenda Blethyn) gives him the gift of music. No greater tonic has any sickly boy ever received. The piano, drums, a guitar and his singing turn him into a dynamo, who intends to conquer show biz. Supported by his sis Nina (Caroline Aaron) and husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins) and backed up by a manger (John Goodman) and music director (Peter Cincotti), Bobby sets out to make the world forget Sinatra and for a few years it nearly does.

Scenes play across time as the boy and the adult Bobby re-examine their journey through hopes and triumphs, fame and misfortune that nearly destroys both him and his idyllic marriage to movie star Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). They meet in Italy while shooting a picture. Over the objections of her stern stage mother Mary (Greta Scacchi), Bobby woos Sandy with the movie’s title song in about as great a song-and-dance montage as we’ve seen in movies since MGM got out of the business of making musicals.

Even the couple’s down-turn — her into alcohol and him into a bitter reaction to public rejection of his changing musical style — Spacey views as a heroic struggle with issues of identity, ambition and an artist’s need to change.

There are risks with this movie-within-a-movie format. A scene where Bobby pressures the owner of New York’s Copacabana nightclub into hiring a black comic comes out of nowhere. Until then, the character has not uttered a single political or social view. But for the most part, it works wonderfully, as the movie attempts to define this man by his music and talent.

Meanwhile, Spacey’s talent continues to expand as his singing and dancing uncannily suggests Darin without being a slavish imitation. His direction of fellow actors is attentive to details as well as the big picture. The production itself achieves everything it wants to in terms of stylish cinematography, period-perfect design and eye-catching costumes.

The film premiered here with its writing credits still undetermined.

BOTTOM LINE:  A triumph of art and entertainment from very talented Mr.
Spacey.