Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea is a wonderful and terrible thing. Some will take to its old-school melodrama and movie-musical virtuosity. Cinematic dog-lovers will come to gawk. Either way, Spacey's biopic of pop singer Bobby Darin is a certifiable must-see. I draw special emphasis to the word certifiable, as it's also the loopiest film I've seen in 2004.
Spacey does that thing he does by writing, directing, producing, and starring as Darin, who shot to fame with his teeny-bopper hit "Splish Splash," then rode the waves to challenge Sinatra's crooner crown. Darin's quick-burning successes are dutifully recounted here: youngest headliner ever at the Sands, multiple Grammys, a film career including an Oscar nomination (for Captain Newman, M.D) and a Golden Globe, and a rebirth as a folk artist on the heels of his civil rights activism.
Though Spacey mostly makes the case that Darin's career was his life, the screenplay (co-written by Lewis Colick) includes personal details. Darin's childhood rheumatism earned him a death sentence which he postponed for more than two decades. Darin never knew his father and had, in essence, two "mothers" (Brenda Blethyn and Caroline Aaron, in high-gear performances). Darin married teen queen Sandra Dee (his co-star in Come September); Darin was eight years her senior, but Spacey has 24 years on Kate Bosworth, who plays Dee.
By way of dismissing his age, Spacey acknowledges it, framing Beyond the Sea as a supposed film project by which an older Darin commandeers his own life story. When someone calls Darin "too old" to play himself as a teen idol, Darin's "Uncle" Charlie (Bob Hoskins) hollers, "He was born to play the part, and you damn well know it!" Even Dennis Potter couldn't have imagined a musical this self-reflexive: a meta metastasis, a blood transfusion from Darin's career to Spacey's that's basically more effective than either De-Lovely (Kline as Porter) and HBO's The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (Rush as Sellers), entertainer biopics released earlier this year.
The role of Darin is the apotheosis of Spacey's slinky physicality: gestures toss and glide through the air during the spot-on concert recreations. The star further bonds himself to Darin by trotting out Spacey's infamous mimicry as jokey impressions by Darin: Darin doing Jerry Lewis, Melvin Douglas, and Walter Matthau sounds a lot like Spacey doing the same. Beyond the Sea's psychoanalytic conclusion: pleaser Darin—an eager eternal mama's boy—was never more himself than when he was enacting his own showman's stage persona.
All of this would be unspeakably bad, were it expressed only in the indicative dialogue ("Charlie, I've been acting my whole life"), but Spacey's film is deliriously, transcendently visual. The widescreen dance numbers are—at once—sharp evocations of real-deal, bygone screen song-and-dance and way, way over the top. Spacey sings the title number through a Richard Lester-styled montage of his courtship of Dee, complete with high-kicking, jazz-handed chorus. The film culminates in Darin's dance with his inner child (puppy-eyed William Ullrich); the sequence might be grotesque if it weren't so damn entertaining. Taken purely as a musical, Beyond the Sea is pretty damn sprightly, with credit due to costumer Ruth Myers, DP Eduardo Serra, choreographer Rob Ashford, and others.
Spacey's film mostly fails as drama, with supporting characters getting no traction (like John Goodman's fleeting yes-man) and technique that's imperviously arch. "Listen, kid," Darin-Spacey tells his younger self. "Memories are like moonbeams—you do with them what you want." Spacey does what he wants, and the result is a mesmerizing hall-of-mirrors reflecting the vainglorious, lonely pursuit of art and affirmation, for all the glory and embarrassment it inevitably brings. Spacey loves Darin not wisely, but too well.