Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Beyond the Sea (Lions’ Gate, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked last night was Beyond the Sea, the first in a box of seven items I’d just ordered from the Columbia House DVD Club (the others being the 1948 Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet; the 1929 Howard Hughes production Hell’s Angels; Manic, a film with Don Cheadle as a teacher in the juvenile ward of a mental institution — one I picked up because an commentator on The United States of Leland had said this was a better movie with Cheadle in a similar role; Traffic, a film I’d been curious about since it was made and wanted to see even more after I showed Charles The Wet Parade, which seemed to be the Traffic of its day in its attempt to do a multi-story film dealing with all the aspects of Prohibition; The United States of Leland itself; and The Woodsman, with Kevin Bacon as a convicted child molester who’s served his sentence and has to face the prejudices of the people in the small town in which he’s settled after release — I had fun with the idea of Columbia House’s computers deciding I’m a particular fan of Kevin Spacey and Don Cheadle because two of these films feature Spacey and three feature Cheadle). This is the controversial biopic of singer/actor Bobby Darin, starring, directed by and co-written by Kevin Spacey, of whom a lot of fun was made because he was already older than Darin was when he died. While we were watching it I couldn’t help but compare it to Ray, another recent musical biopic overlapping the same era (both Charles and Darin were major record sellers for Atlantic in the late 1950’s before both jumped to then-bigger labels, Charles to ABC-Paramount and Darin to Capitol), but whereas Ray followed the normal rules of the biopic — a linear script, a straightforward narrative style, a lead actor (Jamie Foxx) of the right age for the character in the era depicted, and the subject of the film providing most of the music himself (partly through old records and partly through special recordings he made expressly for the film just before his death) — Beyond the Sea broke them and managed to make the breakages work. The conceit of Beyond the Sea is that it stars Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin playing Bobby Darin in a biopic the singer is directing and starring in himself; aside from allowing Spacey to anticipate and pre-emptively answer the criticisms of his own role (a studio executive actually tells him he’s too old to be playing himself!), it also allows Spacey to stage some sequences as pure fantasy, include some surprisingly lavish (for 2004) production numbers (the cast list names 65 people credited just as “Dancer”).

When Charles and I watched the marvelous 1936 Abel Gance biopic of Beethoven, I commented that it wasn’t just a biopic: it was one artist of genius paying tribute to another. Certainly Kevin Spacey is no Abel Gance, and Bobby Darin was no Beethoven, but the two films share in common this aspect of homage; Spacey is less telling us Darin’s story than having fun with Darin’s myth and giving us a now-serious, now-playful insight into what Spacey likes about the man he’s playing. Though occasionally the cameras get too close to Spacey and the age difference between himself and Darin becomes all too apparent — never more so than in the scenes in which he’s first courting wife-to-be Sandra Dee and the visible difference between Spacey’s and Kate Bosworth’s ages makes this seem much more like a May-December romance than it really was (and paradoxically makes the objections of Dee’s mother Mary [Greta Scacchi] seem much more reasonable) — for the most part Spacey is simply marvelous as Darin. Maybe he is too old, but he’s got the manner and the attitude absolutely right — especially when he’s playing Darin performing — and even one of Spacey’s most controversial conceits, namely doing his own singing instead of using Darin’s records, comes off. There’s a bit of audible strain on some of the high notes, but the tone and timbre of the voice is absolutely right — enough so that a longtime fan of Darin’s, commenting on this film on, said he was convinced that it was Darin singing “Mack the Knife” on the film’s trailer. The story of the film is basically accurate as to the broad outlines of Darin’s life and is certainly true to his mythos — and if this film was a box-office disappointment it was probably more to do with the who-cares factor than anything else. As talented a performer as Darin was and as exciting a spectacle as he presented to the people who got to see him live (even though all too much of his act as shown here consists of doing overly bouncy, uptempo swing versions of songs like “Beyond the Sea” and “That’s All” that were originally written as ballads and, in the case of “That’s All,” far better performed by Nat “King” Cole as a ballad), he really wasn’t an epochal figure in American entertainment. The history of this country’s pop culture wouldn’t be materially different if Darin had never lived — or performed — whereas it certainly would be if Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan (to pick the three people Darin was clearly patterning himself after in the different phases of his career) had never lived or performed.

Certainly the most bizarre thing about Bobby Darin was the sheer speed with which he changed images and played around with his overall identity as a performer, from teenybopper rock-’n’-roller to Sinatra-esque crooner (the film vividly depicts Sinatra as Darin’s role model — one almost inevitable for an Italian-American male singer growing up in the 1950’s — and underscores his grim determination to become “bigger than Sinatra,” which needless to say he never quite did) to Dylan-style protest singer and born-again hippie and the way he was torn in the last two years of his life between his desire to reinvent himself as an au courant singer-songwriter and his knowledge that his stock-in-trade, both financially and expressively, was doing the Vegas-lounge act in tuxedo, toupee and clean-shaven face. Not long ago I screened a videotape I recorded from PBS of the last extant Bobby Darin concert on film — a show from 1970 that made his image uncertainty all too obvious: he does one of Sinatra’s most appalling schticks (a dreadfully unfunny comedy routine delivered while holding a teacup) and then performs the song, “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow.” The song was written by Hank Williams, Sr. and recorded both by him and by Johnny Cash — and it’s a testament to Darin’s skill and integrity as a performer that his version doesn’t suffer by comparison; for once a performer who had seemed through most of his life to be duplicating Sinatra’s image of “cool” without the emotional intensity of Sinatra at his best lets his guard down and delivers Williams’ song in simple, heartfelt tones that make the saga riveting and poignant. Beyond the Sea doesn’t quite come to grips with the Darin perplex — though it’s got some marvelously scornful lines (during one argument he and Sandra Dee have, she tells him he should vary his set list every night because, “After all, I don’t make the same movie every time” — to which he offers the withering comeback/putdown, “Sure you do”) — and the film suffers from omitting Sandra Dee’s victimization at the hands of a pedophile stepfather (the real reason she was scared to death of having sex with her new husband — Dodd Darin makes a great deal of this in his book about his parents and I was surprised it wasn’t mentioned in the film), but for the most part Beyond the Sea is a marvelously entertaining film, in at least one respect — the blatant, unashamed artificiality of its visual look (most of the “exteriors” are sets built inside soundstages) — borrowing from the 1920’s classics from directors like Murnau and Lang shot in the same location: the old UFA studios at Babelsberg, Germany. It’s a film that overcomes the factors that could have limited it — the artificiality (and the entire conceit of filming a movie that takes place entirely within the U.S.[1] in Germany, of all places!); Spacey’s age and less-than-ideal singing voice; a committee-made script (it began as a screenplay written by Lewis Colick for Warners in 1987 and passed through 17 years of development hell before it finally reached the screen — and though many writers got their hands on it in the meantime the Screen Writers’ Guild ruled that the only people who deserved writing credits were Colick for the original framework and Spacey for his additions to the script that finally got shot); a non-linear structure and such narrative conceits as making the child Bobby Cossotto, later Darin[2] (William Ullrich, who gets an “Introducing … ” credit) an on-screen character throughout the movie, talking to Spacey as the adult Darin and constantly urging him towards more honesty in the film-within-the-film — and managed to be quite entertaining, moving and convincing. — 6/11/05

I sat through the second half of Beyond the Sea, the Bobby Darin biopic, again. This time around Kevin Spacey’s age (he was about seven years older when he made the film than Darin had been when he died) bothered me more than it had before, and (perhaps because I wasn’t watching it from the beginning) so did the stylized devices like having Darin’s proposal to Sandra Dee become a production number with chorus line set to the title song, or having Darin as a boy (William Ullrich) and Darin as a man (Kevin Spacey) interact in the metafictional world of the old UFA Neubabelsberg studio in Germany where the actual film was shot and the events have been dramatized in connection with a film-within-a-film on Darin’s life. Still, I admired Spacey’s skill at impersonating Darin the performer (especially given that he did his own singing — he came a lot closer to capturing the real Darin than Joaquin Phoenix did with the real Johnny Cash, and his vocals were close enough that even some long-time Darin fans reported to that they’d been momentarily convinced that Darin’s own records were being used on the soundtrack) and his determination to make this more than just another routine musical biopic — even though I also found myself irritated at Darin’s insistence at taking some of the most beautiful, most sensitive ballad songs ever written (Charles Trenet’s “Beyond the Sea,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers,” and the Brandt-Haymes “That’s All,” the last sung at the proper slow tempo by Nat “King” Cole and June Christy in their Capitol recordings) and turning them into bouncy, uptempo swing numbers in his nightclub act. — 10/10/06


I ran the film Beyond the Sea because our friend Garry Hobbs had brought his own DVD of it — Charles and I had watched it eight years ago when the DVD first came out and I got it from Columbia House, and I liked it this time around as much as I had then. Beyond the Sea was a project that was in the works for almost two decades at various studios; it was a biopic of singer Bobby Darin, who became a major star but didn’t quite reach the legendary status of the people he was obviously imitating — Elvis Presley in the first third of his career, Frank Sinatra in the second third and Bob Dylan in the last third. That list of influences pretty much sums up the eclecticism of Darin’s art; he went from aspiring rock ’n’ roller (his first hit was the charming novelty song “Splish Splash,” which he co-wrote with the man who later became the disc jockey Murray the K) to Sinatra-style nightclub crooner before his experience campaigning for Robert Kennedy for President — and the trauma of his murder, which also unhinged Rosemary Clooney and other celebrities who had backed his candidacy — and his opposition to the Viet Nam War led him to write and record socially conscious material like “A Simple Song of Freedom” that turned his nightclub audience off without getting him any new fans among the hippies and politicos of the 1960’s. Darin was a sickly child (he had rheumatic fever and throughout his adult career had to have oxygen tanks backstage to keep up his energy for his shows) and he died young — indeed, Kevin Spacey, who directed and co-wrote this film as well as playing Darin, was older (45) when he made it than Darin was when he died (37). The film was controversial when it came out not only because of the age difference between the actor and his character (though Spacey is actually quite convincing in the role and only a few times does the camera get close enough to reveal his age) but because Spacey, Lewis Colick (who’d been attached to the project in the 1980’s — a lot of other writers had been on it since then but the Writers’ Guild of America judged that none of them had contributed enough to the final script to deserve screen credit) and the producers decided that instead of doing a traditional biopic, they’d use a more fantasy-like approach involving big production numbers and scenes in which the young Bobby Darin (William Ullrich) calls the older one on his B.S. I liked the film this time around pretty much as I had before, though the central conceits — the fantasy sequences and the idea that Darin is directing and writing a biopic in which he plays himself (“No one’s ever done that before,” says one member of Darin’s entourage, and an poster noted that people had played themselves in movies before, including Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story and Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back) — do get a bit arch at times.

The film was shot entirely in the Neubabelsberg Studios in Berlin, which had been built in the early 1920’s for the giant UFA company (many of the classic German silents, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, had been made there), had fallen into disrepair during the post-World War II era (unfortunately the site had ended up in East Berlin) but were restored and turned into a state-of-the-art facility after Germany was reunified in 1990. At times the marvelous studio effects Spacey and his crew were after look great — the Bronx neighborhood where Walden Robert Cassotto, a.k.a. Bobby Darin, grew up has the look of a 1920’s “street” film and actually comes off as more convincing than it would have if they’d filmed on location in a real urban neighborhood — and Spacey’s performance (he did all his own singing for the film and caught Darin’s style so convincingly some long-time Darin fans were sure he was using Darin’s actual records) is magnificent. He’s joined by Kate Bosworth as Darin’s (first) wife, Sandra Dee, though the terror Dee experienced on their wedding night is incomprehensible unless you know that she had regularly been sexually molested by her stepfather — indeed, the book Dream Lovers by their son Dodd Darin (on which the movie is nominally based) claims that her stepdad and Darin were the only people she ever had sex with in her life — an earlier draft of the screenplay had made Dee’s history as a molestation victim a major plot point, but the version that got filmed ignored it. Darin himself was a wildly eclectic performer with one annoying habit all too faithfully reproduced by Spacey in the film — he tended to take beautiful ballads like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and the Bob Haymes-Allan Brandt “That’s All” (the latter definitively recorded in ballad tempo by Nat “King” Cole) and speed them up into nightclub swingers — but I’d certainly like to re-see the 1970 film that’s the very last video of the real Darin performing; after a stupid, banal, Sinatra-esque “tea break” in which he tries to be a stand-up comic and tells excruciatingly unfunny jokes, Darin comes back with an extraordinary gut-wrenching version of Hank Williams’ song “I Heard the Lonesome Whistle Blow” that holds its own against the formidable competition from Williams and Johnny Cash! — 10/15/14

[1] — Actually, it doesn’t; some key scenes, including the courtship of Darin and Dee, take place in Italy where the two are on location playing the second leads (with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida as the stars) in the film Come September. [M.G.C., 10/11/06]

[2] — The explanation for Darin’s stage name given here: he was passing a Mandarin Chinese restaurant and saw their neon sign, in which the letters “M-A-N” had burned out and only “D-A-R-I-N” was left. That was one of about two or three explanations Dodd Darin mentioned in his book.