He started out as a rock and roller in the 1950s before transforming himself into a bow-tied, finger snapping nightclub singer in the ‘60s. By the end of the decade, he reinvented himself again, this time as a denim clad folk singer protesting the war in Vietnam and memorably crooning Tim Hardin's classic "If I Were a Carpenter."
It was an unusual career, but Darin was an unusual talent: a supremely gifted vocalist, performer, and songwriter who also distinguished himself as an actor, earning an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for 1963's Captain Newman M.D. Off stage he was known for being brash, cocky, and impatient. The impatience isn't hard to understand. Darin's heart was weakened after a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, and he wasn't expected to see his fifteenth birthday. It's no wonder he was determined to accomplish as much as possible in whatever time he had. Death at age 37 is tragic, but for Darin, surviving even to that age was something of a triumph.
Yes, Spacey is too old for the part, almost a decade older than Darin was when he left the stage for good, but there is a slight facial resemblance, and, when crooning the title song and Darin's immortal version of Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife," he even sounds a little like him. Yes, you heard right. In a daring and, perhaps, egocentric move, the actor has opted not to lip-synch to Darin's original recordings, but to do his own singing. The surprise is that he is generally superb, though no match for the real thing. Spacey handles the ballads with ease, but his voice is a little shaky on more uptempo numbers like "Dream Lover."
The key to Spacey's performance, and the ingredient that makes it a winner, is the sheer joy he exhibits in playing one of his idols. Joy is apparent throughout much of the film, quite an accomplishment when one considers that a happy ending is impossible.
When we first see Darin, he's onstage at the legendary Copa. He interrupts the performance to berate a musician and we learn this isn't a concert, but a movie set where Darin is starring in a film based on his own life. He argues with his manager, Steve Blauner (John Goodman), about the best way to begin the film, and whose memory of past events is accurate, when Darin as a boy appears to set them straight. The boy remains throughout the film, and he's not the only bit of fantasy we're to see. After we watch Darin's mother teach him piano and fill his head with dreams of stardom, reality is pushed aside as the streets are filled with singing and dancing, and a now grown Darin strides out of the Bronx for New York City to claim the fame and fortune that are his destiny.
Success comes with the 1958 novelty hit "Splish Splash," but Darin isn't content with teen idol status, and fights with his managers to record more adult material. His instincts are proven correct when his rendition of "Mack the Knife" reaches number one and wins several Grammys. Movie stardom is next, and on the set of his first film, he woos outwardly wholesome Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), the star of those Gidget movies. Against her mother's wishes, they marry after a courtship that finds Darin serenading his love with the classic ballad "Beyond the Sea."
They appear to be an ideal couple, but she resents his constant touring and ever present entourage. Darin's career also has disappointments which he doesn't handle gracefully. After losing the Oscar to Melvyn Douglas of Hud, he berates Dee, assigning her with some of the blame for his loss. "Warren Beatty is here with Leslie Caron, a best actress nominee," he screams, "and I'm here with Gidget!"
More traumatic than losing the Oscar is the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy whose presidential candidacy he supported, and the revelation that the woman he was raised to believe is his sister is actually his mother. By then, The Beatles and Bob Dylan had transformed popular music. Without a hit for several years, Darin scores a comeback with his sublime 1966 version of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter." He hasn't merely changed his style of music, but his entire life. He tears off his toupee, throws away the bow-tie, and abandons Vegas and Beverly Hills for Big Sur where he engages in the kind of naval gazing typical of other "dropouts" from the era. When he returns to the stage, it's as "Bob Darin," and the songs reflect his more contemplative nature. The audience is not so introspective, so he returns to Vegas, toupee and bow-tie in place, and finds that Sandra Dee is correct: "People hear what they see." What they see is the Bobby Darin of old, and they love him and even his self-penned anti-war statement, "Simple Song of Freedom."
Reality dictates that this comeback be short-lived, and it's here that the film's fantasy sequences are most welcome in that they prevent the film from being too downbeat. Even after his heart gives out, Darin is back on stage for a final number. "Memories are like moonbeams," his mother told him. "You can do with them whatever you want." Darin's memory lives on, of course, in compact discs, movies, videos of his live performances, and now, in Spacey's marvelous tribute. Those who already know and appreciate Darin's talents are bound to enjoy Beyond the Sea more than those unacquainted with the legend, but here's an opportunity for new generations to be introduced to one of the 20th century's most versatile performers.
Bobby Darin still swings. So does this movie.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 2004 Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal