Immortality for Bobby D
Kevin Spacey Reinvents Bobby Darin’s Life Without Death by Bill Holdship
August 5, 1973 My parents had taken my brother and me to Las Vegas to see Elvis Presley’s August 6 opening-night show, but today, we got to see Bobby Darin’s closing-night performance in the same showroom. He was fantastic, ending with “Splish Splash, ” performing a John Sebastian medley, and doing pretty much everything an entertainer can possibly do.
It turned out to be his last performance ever; he died that December; at age 37. So I was definitely among the doubters when two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey announced his intentions to star in, direct, and sing the Bobby Darin story in Beyond the Sea, opening December 17. Spacey, who also cowrote the screenplay, bought the rights to Darin’s story from Warner Bros., where a film directed by Barry Levinson and starring revolving rumors (including – can you imagine? – Billy Joel) was stalled for more than 12 years. But, even though he’s older than Darin was when he died (which is turned into an “inside” joke early in the picture), Spacey, 45, amazingly captures the essence of Darin – and sometimes sounds just like him – in a film that’s sometimes as much fantasy as it is a straight biopic.
VCR: Why Bobby Darin?
Kevin Spacey: My mother thought Bobby Darin was the greatest thing that ever walked the face of the Earth. So, I grew up in a house with Bobby Darin records playing constantly. By the time I was 10, I was standing in the living room, singing into a hairbrush to Bobby Darin songs. Then, when I was in my 20s, a couple of biographies came out, and I found out for the first time about his life. I was just struck by what he overcame, how much he packed into not just a brief life but a briefer career. But because he died so young and was so diverse – his music belongs in nine different sections of a record store – his legacy isn’t what it could or should be. If you live a long life and do one thing really well, your fame is probably secure. But he did a lot of things really well. And because he changed his physical appearance and didn’t want to be the Bobby Darin they wanted him to be, he went through an identity crisis that also had a detrimental effect on his career and legacy. So, I wanted to make a film that celebrated his talent, would be entertaining, and would tell a story worth telling.
VCR: How did you prepare? It’s a difficult role, because obviously a lot of people out there still do remember him.
Oh, yeah. Millions of fans you obviously don’t want to disappoint. And you do want to be accurate. I especially felt the music had to be accurate, because, to me, if the music wasn’t right, it didn’t matter what else was. But I didn’t feel hampered by having to do an impression of him. I certainly felt an obligation to have, from a musical and performance standpoint, his energy, his style, his way around phrases and – God help us! – his arrangements. And we were greatly aided in that by [Darin’s manager] Steve Blauner and by the Darin family; once they got over their initial concerns about me actually singing the role. After that, they went into Bobby’s archives and found all his arrangements and charts and sent them to me.
VCR: How did you convince them?
Well, about five years ago, [Blauner] said in a newspaper, “Over my dead body is anybody but Bobby Darin going to sing Bobby Darin.” I understood that reaction. I appreciated their concern for Bobby’s legacy. I didn’t contact them after getting the rights to the story until I got the production money – or what I thought was the money – and the movie was real. They’d already gone through 15 years of dashed hopes about getting it made. And it isn’t just a widget to them; this is a man they love. So when I finally met Steve, the first words out of his mouth were, “OK, I’m just going to say it and get it out of the way. I don’t think you should sing it. I don’t think you should act it. You’re too old. And you shouldn’t direct it.” I said, “Sit down, Steve. Have a drink. We’ll get beyond that.” And we sat there for six hours. And then I met [Darin’s son] Dodd – and I’ve since spent a lot of time with both of them.
When they were finally able to hear from my heart what I wanted to do, they understood why I needed to do the singing. Because I grew up just loving musicals. You knew that was Fred Astaire singing. You know that’s James Cagney. Or Gene Kelly. It was only later that it wasn’t Audrey Hepburn singing. There are many excellent performances with actors lip-syncing – we have one this year with Jamie Foxx as Ray [Charles]. But because I was going to do these big musical dance numbers, it wouldn’t have been possible if we’d been tied to the original tracks. I got close with the singing – but the real truth is, nobody ever gets that close. Bobby was in a league all his own. I just wanted to serve him. The family has now seen it – [Darin’s ex-wife] Sandra Dee saw it the other day – and they’re all incredibly pleased. As far as I’m concerned, those are the biggest critics I’ll face.
VCR: Things were condensed and left out, like his love affair with Connie Francis, George Burns being his mentor, and his second marriage. You were obviously going more for a character study than a straight telling of his life.
Yeah. Maybe it’s just me, but I get taken out of a movie a little bit when there’s too many famous people portrayed. I figured Bobby and Sandy are famous enough. And then. who do you get to play George Burns? Connie Francis? Dick Clark?
The hardest thing was deciding what to tell. The second was what to sing. This was a guy who recorded over 300 songs. Ultimately, the decision was mine. The family never told me what I should do. It’s true he got divorced. It’s true he got remarried for a brief period of time in the last year of his life. But I wanted to make a romance and, divorced or not, they still loved each other. She still loves him to this day. Because I was using fantasy and the movie-within-a- movie and warping time, I didn’t feel obligated to tell a linear story. I also thought there were better things for storytelling. For example Bobby had long played the Copa before he met Sandy But I loved the idea of the Copa being something they shared. It wasn’t factually true, but it doesn’t really matter. I didn’t want a movie where people felt they had to pass a litmus test of facts to enjoy it. If you know who Bobby was when you walk in, great. If you don’t, great. You’ll discover who he is, just as you do when you go to a movie about a fictional character.
VCR: lt’s sort of a biopic and fantasy combined.
Part of it was a weird resistance to straight biopics, though I’m happy we’re not opening in a vacuum, thanks to fi1ms this year like Ray and De-Lovely. The main reason, though, was, here was a guy who f***ing did everything. He wrote songs. He did impressions. He sang his guts out. He danced. He played the drums, the guitar, the vibes, the harmonica, the piano. How do you show all that [without having] just a two-hour concert movie? So I thought, maybe there’s a way to express all that exuberance and energy and talent by taking the movie back to the days when they used music to advance the story. That way, we could use dance to show Bobby doing more than just singing in clubs and the recording studio. And I wanted people to leave the theater humming, not having just seen a big death bed scene. Because, you know, in my movie, Bobby Darin doesn’t die.
Kevin Spacey will be singing at the Ventura Theatre on December 3.
Thanks to Jim P.
VC Reporter December 2, 2004 Pages 17 & 18. No Spacey photo.