Beyond the Sea (2004)

This biopic of singer Bobby Darin has something of the bright, sparkly feel of 1950s musicals - The Five Pennies or The Glenn Miller Story - as it hammers the facts into a framework for musical numbers or great acting turns. It opens with Darin (Kevin Spacey) snapping coolly through 'Mack the Knife' in a nightclub, then pulls back to show this is an imagined movie studio and Darin is somehow supervising a film version of his own life, heckled by a kid (William Ullrich) who represents his younger self (and bluntly tells Spacey he is too old for the role). We flash back to the childhood primal business about a sickly kid doctors think won't make fifteen and a supportive showbiz-aspirant mama (Brenda Blethyn) who encourages Walden Robert Cassotto to practice – cuing an exuberant 'Lazy River' dance number on the street, which sends Darin dancing off to a hectic career.

If there's a problem, it's the familiar biopic factor: though some extraordinary things happened to Darin (the woman he thought was his sister turned out to be his mother), his career arc in showbiz was like that of many, many other subjects of musicals: check the marriage to another star (Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee – which may be cruelly apt casting) which veers between romantic comedy happiness and conflicting career drag-out fights, the failed new direction after the initial success has passed (Darin tries to be a hippie anti-war folkie) that sets up a final triumph as he manages to reconcile his new message ('We the People Don't Want a War') with his old showbizzy style, the steady march of American history in the background with a big trauma announced over the radio (here, it's the assassination of Bobby Kennedy) and the loyal crew of comical supporters (John Goodman, Bob Hoskins – neither stretched). Spacey, also directing, is onscreen almost all the time: there's not much new to his Darin, but his musical performances (and dance moves) are uncanny (even if he looks disturbingly like Bela Lugosi) and he relishes a few big 'acting' moments (throwing a tantrum when Melvyn Douglas beats Darin to the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, shattered to learn about his parentage). It feels like a big movie star (Spacey, of course, has won Oscars) trying to show he can do karaoke too. Ironies: Darin's mainstream hit was written by communists (Weill and Brecht), Douglas allegedly got his sympathy Oscar for being on his death-bed but actually outlived Darin ('I was dying first') by years. Best Supporting Actress bid here comes from Caroline Aaron as the sister-mother, brassily embarrassing but agonised at keeping her secret, finally revealing it with a slight tinge of malice, sobbing at the reconciliation acknowledged in that last Vegas gig.

First published in this form here.

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