Beyond the Sea (2004)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-1; L-4 ; S/N-4

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 31:8-9

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
1 Cor. 13:4-6

Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold… Romans 12:2a (J.B. Phillips)

Beyond the Sea

2004 has been a good year for fans who prefer to see rather than to read biographies of famous people. There was De-Lovely, Kinsey, Coach Carter, Finding Neverland, Ray, (for the church market the re-issue of the 1954 film John Wesley)—and now Kevin Spacey’s take on the under-rated singer Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea. If you are like me and were only marginally aware of his presence during the fifties and Sixties, then this film will come as a revelation. Far from being just another shallow entertainer appealing to teenagers (remember “Splish Splash,” a song about as deep as the bathtub in which it was supposedly inspired?), Darin followed a path not only that led him to TV, his beloved Copacabana Club, and Hollywood, but also into Civil Rights and the political campaign trail on behalf of Robert Kennedy. I never would have connected the gentle and lovely protest song that climaxes the film, “A Simple Song of Freedom,” with the author of “Splish Splash” and popularizer of “Mack the Knife.”

Kevin Spacey takes a real risk in this film playing and directing himself as Bobby Darin. Darin died in 1973, just 37 years old, whereas Spacey is in his 40’s and does not try to disguise his age with make-up. He gets around this by framing the story of Darin’s life within the fictional story of making a movie about himself. Following a remark from a reporter allowed on the movie set that he is “too old” to be playing himself and during a debate with the film’s producers and his manager about the order of the songs in the film, the adult Darin turns to the child actor playing himself in the flashbacks, William Ulrich. Little Bobby acts as sort of a conscience and challenger as the adult Darin tells his story, even joining his adult self in a rousing duet late in the film. (A very talented young actor-singer—let’s hope we will see more of Ulrich in the years ahead!)

The second great risk Spacey takes in the film is by singing the songs himself, rather than resorting to the usual dubbing. Whereas in a film like Ray, portraying an entertainer with a highly unique style, lip-synching is essential, Darrin’s voice, although pleasant and memorable, is more easily imitated, Spacey turning out a pretty good vocal impersonation.

As a sickly young boy Walden Robert Cassotto overhears the doctor tell his mother Polly Cassotto (Brenda Blethyn) that the lad probably will not live beyond his 15th birthday. Determined to make the best of what years he has, she and the family scrape the money together to buy an old piano. A former vaudeville singer-dancer, Polly teaches Walden how to play, sing, and dance. This provides not only the escape from his physical misery that she had intended, but also the fulfillment of her promise, “Music opens up a whole new world.” The boy is not only able to live with his rheumatic fever, but for a while seemingly to conquer it as he looks forward to a career in entertainment. He determines to play one day at the famed Copacabana Club and to outdraw there the current reigning king of the club circuit, Frank Sinatra. Accompanied by his best friend turned manager Steve Blauner (John Goodman), his sister Nina Cassotto Maffia (Caroline Aaron) and her husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins), the teenager sets forth to form a band and climb the steep pinnacle to success.

Along the way we are in for some surprises. Already having appeared on national television by the age of 20, he is just 22 when he sings his song “Splish Splash” on American Bandstand, turning him into an overnight sensation with America’s teenagers. But being popular with youth was not his greatest ambition. Wanting to appeal to all ages, Bobby (oh yes, we neglected to report that Walden one night, realizing his given name was not exactly suited for a marquee, picked the last of his stage name from the neon sign of a Chinese restaurant—the first three letters of MANDARIN being burnt out so that only DARIN was visible in the darkness) continued to explore genres beyond rock and roll. His courting of actress Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) during their making a film together in Italy is told with much humor, and then the darker side is also revealed in his egocentric disparaging of her career, and the subsequent temporary decline of his own. During this period, Bobby and we are rocked back on our heels by the news concerning his family—a twist so bizarre, that were it not for the fact that it is true, we would have dismissed it as something taken from a TV soap opera.

Bobby achieves his goal of being signed to star at the Copa, but it almost does not happen when he insists that the comedian appearing as the act opener be George Kirby. The Copa manager is dead set against it. It is 1960, and, as he points out, no “Negro” has ever played his club. Bobby is just 24 at this stage, but he sticks to his guns, insisting to the older and more experienced man that he and Kirby must both be signed. He points out that “there is a first time for everything.” Bristling at this young star’s insistence on having his own way, the manager angrily replies, “Are you threatening me?” To which Bobby says that he is just “cautioning” him. In the next scene we catch a glimpse of Kirby, opening for the singer who had championed his cause. Later, we see more of this serious side of Darin in his campaigning for Robert Kennedy, and his devastation at the news of his political idol’s murder, during which the now often debilitated Darin takes a break from his career, even writing his protest song and then finding himself booed off the stage when he insists on singing his new music, rather than his old standards.

So, if you can accept a middle-aged actor portraying a youthful singer, Beyond the Sea offers many rewards. We see that music can be a means of sustaining life and even be a means of changing the world for the better, or at least a small corner of it. Let us hope that Kevin Spacey’s big gamble pays off. Beyond the Sea offers us more than just entertainment.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) Music became for Bobby more than just an escape from his illness and weakened body. What has it meant to you through the years? Comfort; joy; a way of expressing yourself?

2) Were you wondering why Nina felt so hurt when Bobby paid tribute to the “two women in my life,” his wife and his mother? How do we better understand her hurt later on?

3) Would you have expected a 24 year-old to stand up for racial justice at such a critical juncture in his career? What did Bobby risk in doing so? Do you think you would have done so? Have you been involved in such a moment of championing someone else?

4) What do you think of Bobby’s campaign of winning Sandra Dee’s mother in order to obtain the opportunity to win the heart of his beloved? Compare this to other stories in which the wooer fights directly against disapproving parent(s). Is Darin’s method manipulation or Gandhian—or a bit of both?

5) What do you think of his way of dealing with Sandra Dee’s fear of sex on their wedding night? How is this gentle (again, Gandhian?) approach more effective than insisting on his “marital rights”? See the Corinthian passage above in this regard. You Freudians—see any interesting symbolism in his use of the sword?

6) What do you think of Bobby’s insistence, after Robert Kennedy’s death, that he sing his new songs, rather than what his audience wants? Romans 12:2a?