Part of Lions Gate's "Music Makers" series, i.e., new and previously released DVDs packaged with music CDs, Beyond the Sea (2004) is the extremely well-made film biography of legendary vocalist/musician and sometime actor Bobby Darin, a longtime pet project of the film's director, co-writer and star, Kevin Spacey. Though not a complete success, it's very impressive on many levels and deserves points for almost pulling off ambitious storytelling devices that break away from the usual musical biopic.
Except for the five-song CD, the content is identical to the June 2005 DVD release, which includes a decent 16:9 enhanced transfer, good audio and extra features.
As Kevin Spacey notes in the making-of documentary, renewed interested by the younger generations in '40s-'60s-era crooners like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and others almost unfathomably didn't extend to Bobby Darin (1936-1973), though his biggest hits, including "Mack the Knife," "Beyond the Sea," "Splish Splash," "Dream Lover" are among the best-remembered songs of the their era. Maybe it was because Darin was so hard to categorize: the pendulum of his recording career swung from rock'n'roll to classical crooning, and then Darin turned another corner switching to folk-like protest songs and ballads.
The movie smartly opens with the image Darin is best known for then and now, as a Sinatra-styled crooner belting out "Mack the Knife" to an appreciative nightclub audience. But mid-song this is revealed to be staged, on a movie set, where Darin's life story is being filmed. There, on the soundstage, Darin (Kevin Spacey) confers with "the kid playing him as a kid" (William Ullrich) and in a dream-like, life-flashing-before-one's-eyes device, the two Bobbys drift like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past through Darin's personal and professional life, real and imagined. Throughout the film are reminders that this is a story within a story: in one scene, for instance, Darin walks directly from his mother's funeral to an adjoining set, the stage of The Ed Sullivan Show, with handlers changing Darin's wardrobe mid-stride.
The first-half the film isn't as good or as interesting as what comes later, partly because it follows the overly familiar rags-to-riches story seen in a million other films. Spacey tries to liven things up with a couple of fantasy musical numbers, but while these are colorful with good choreography, they also tend to have the effect of keeping the audience at arm's length emotionally, and perhaps more importantly they undermine the dramatic points Spacey is trying to make about Darin's personality and motives.
One of these is that Darin suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, the same disease comedian Lou Costello struggled with and who like Darin, was an obsessive hard-living workaholic who died at an early age. Darin in fact was not expected to live past 16, and as a young man in his 20s and 30s was keenly aware that he was living on borrowed time. This, in turn, fueled an insatiable ambition to achieve all his life's goals in the short time he knew he had.
Kevin Spacey doesn't look like Darin particularly and technically is much too old for the part - to paraphrase Tom Lerher, by the time he was Kevin Spacey's age Bobby Darin had been dead for seven years. Nevertheless, it's an outstanding performance that captures the singer's wit, charm, vulnerability, and famous bad temper. To some degree it whitewashes Darin's dark side and Darin's political awakening goes unexplained, but Darin himself brushes off such criticisms with a line of dialogue early on: "Memories are like moonbeams - we do with them what we want." At the time the film was released, Spacey earned much well-deserved praise for doing all his own singing, but his dancing is equally impressive. It's one of the best performances to date by one of the great actors of our time.
It's after Darin's professional peak, after his dream gig at the Copacabana and after earning numerous awards, including an Oscar nomination, that Beyond the Sea really starts pulling its audience in. Partly this is because Darin's later years are less predictable and generally not known, and partly because his very identity is thrown asunder by a revelation that will come as a Big Shock to those unfamiliar with Darin's life. As a result, he leaves his alcoholic movie star wife, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), and lives in a trailer on the California coast. He stops wearing toupees, adopts a hippie look and composes folk songs. Near the end of the film there's a wonderful, emotionally powerful moment with Darin's sister, Nina (Caroline Aaron); it makes one wish there were more moments like that throughout the film. (As Darin, Spacey surprised an unsuspecting Aaron during filming; her reaction to his dialogue is genuine.)
A German-British co-production, Beyond the Sea was shot almost entirely in and around Studio Babelsberg in Germany, and gets away with it too, at least until the scenes set in Beverly Hills, which look about as warm and arid as Vancouver. Shooting there also seems to have given the film a slight continental flavor; the dance numbers, for instance, have more the feel of Jacques Demy than Gene Kelly.
Though Bosworth doesn't make much of an impression as Sandra Dee, the rest of the cast is excellent, especially Caroline Aaron, Bob Hoskins as Darin's surrogate father, John Goodman as Darin's manager, Brenda Blethyn as Darin's mother, and Greta Scacchi as Dee's mother.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Super 35, Beyond the Sea is presented here in a fine 16:9 enhanced format. The box lists the aspect ratio at 1.85:1, but that's incorrect as both the original theatrical ratio and the DVD transfer are 2.35:1. The film's subtle photography and vibrant colors frankly would play better in high-definition, but this release is acceptable. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is up to contemporary standards; an alternate 2.0 stereo version is offered, along with optional Spanish subtitles.
Supplements include an above average "Making of" featurette, with behind-the-scenes interviews touching upon the film's long development history and last-minute financing troubles. Kevin Spacey and co-producer Adam Patterson provide a low-key but informative audio commentary.
A separate CD includes the following songs: "Mack the Knife" (Bobby Darin), "I Got a Woman" (Ray Charles), "I Want to Be Wanted" (Sammy Davis, Jr.), "Veinte Anos" (Omara Portuondo), and "Beyond the Sea" (Darin).
I was surprised to learn that Beyond the Sea received mostly negative reviews and died at the box office both here and abroad. Though not entirely successful, much of it is wonderful, and it deserves to find an audience. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.