King of Clubs
As crooner Bobby Darin, and as the director of his life story, Kevin Spacey really knows how to work a room
The headliner stops for a moment backstage to swirl out a quick autograph just as the announcer crows: “Please welcome . . . Bobby Darin!” Darin (Kevin Spacey) steps up and swaggers joyously into the velvety first lines of “Mack the Knife” until one of the band members hits a sour note. Darin’s face clouds. He snarls at the band, demands they start again, and stomps off—and then the house lights snap on with a hiss, the assistant director tells the costumed extras in the audience, “10 minutes, don’t go far!”, and Darin’s manager (John Goodman) pleads with him not to be such a perfectionist. After all, it’s just the movie of his life. Thus begins Beyond the Sea, and already we’ve got a winking reminder that what we’re seeing on screen is not truth. But what is truth, anyway? Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto. He wore a toupee. His family situation was a lie. And he wasn’t expected to live beyond age 15. Who wants the truth, anyway?
Director-writer-star Kevin Spacey’s labor-of-love biopic of the late Bobby Darin is a tremendous piece of cinema, told with verve and sticking close to the flavor of Darin’s life if not the nickel-and-dime facts. After a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, Darin devoted his life to proving doctors wrong and becoming the kind of megastar who could headline at the Copacabana. He sweated and suffered all the way to the big time, eventually scoring top 40 hits like “Splish Splash” and marrying teen sweetheart Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). He was dynamic, gifted, and driven—and also arrogant, stubborn, and vulnerable to a short-timer’s frustration. So much of Darin’s music (like the grisly “Mack the Knife” or the dead-child ballad “Artificial Flowers”) was tragedy cosseted in a brassy, vibrant crescendo, the soundtrack of a man desperate to cram as much as possible into a truncated life span. Spacey understands how the specter of early death propelled Darin and suffuses the film’s glamor with an underscore of decay. When we see Darin give his all onstage, it looks so easy, and then we step backstage, where his handlers are pressing an oxygen mask to his face for a few precious seconds before he’s got to face the crowd again.
Spacey deftly swerves between chronology and fantasy to get to the truth of Darin’s story. He stages his scenes with the judicious eye of a theater director, as if he has only 30 feet of stage to fill and must twist reality to make his point. To depict a breakneck schedule that won’t even allow time for his mother’s funeral, Bobby’s handlers strip him of his funeral suit in the church and push him through a velvet curtain onto a Las Vegas stage, leaving his child self (William Ullrich) behind to bear the grief. But this isn’t a filmed play. When a set can’t replace the grandeur of the real ocean, or when young Bobby needs to morph into his older incarnation, Spacey knows film does the job best. He melds the best of both traditions, with superb results.
No one will be surprised at Spacey’s ability to slip into the dramatic portion of the role, but he also embodies Darin the performer with a minimum of prosthetics and a maximum outpouring of talent. His warm, toffee-flavored voice and magnetic stage presence recall an era when a “triple threat” performer was underqualified. Spacey, quite simply, wows. He possesses the legendary charisma said of the best nightclub performers, that he has the gift of making each audience member believe he’s singing to him or her alone (even when he’s just a filmed projection). His song and dance numbers are so outstanding you repress the urge to applaud when they’re over.
But for a movie that gets so much right, regrettably the third act falters. Perhaps it’s because the third act of Darin’s life faltered, when changing times and the revelation of a devastating family secret led him to experiment as the untoupeed folk singer “Bob Darin.” His “triumphant” return to the nightclub circuit (doing big-band versions of his anemic protest songs) feels embarrassing rather than exhilarating. The movie soft-pedals Darin’s death with some “legends never die” subterfuge and an ill-placed fantasy dance sequence, leaving an unresolved hole in the thrust of the narrative. To structure a movie around Darin’s mortality and then disengage from the moment of death rings untrue.
But who cares about the truth? A little spit and polish makes the bitterness of life bearable. When all is said and done, the film’s imperfections fade in the afterglow of Spacey’s enormous talent. Beyond the Sea is a brilliant triumph for a novice director, an auspicious beginning to a second career, and maybe, if the nightclub circuit comes calling, a third.