I’m not sure what the parameters are for biopics that focus on singers/actors, or if I should even include them. I mean do I include the myriad of Elvis biopics, or just the ones that focus on the films, etc? I’ll make this week’s choice a test case, and you can let me know where the lines are drawn in the comments. Beyond the Sea tells the story of singer/actor Bobby Darin and his marriage to movie superstar Sandra Dee; that’s the movie’s intention. Considering actor Kevin Spacey directed, wrote, and stars as Darin, it’s no surprise this is really a biopic about Darin, and in that regard the finished product is good. The problem lies in how marginalized and underwritten Dee is, to the point of making her a cookie-cutter for the horrors of super-stardom. All context to her is lost, making Dee feel like the archetypal jealous wife. Good music, and a good movie about Darin, just don’t expect a relationship to be explored.
Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) dreams of stardom, and has to do it quickly as a heart ailment has put a timer on his life. As he climbs the ladder into the music world, he enters into movies, where he meets the precocious Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth).
Obviously, Dee is the movie star that would fit best into this feature – although Darin did get nominated for an Academy Award – but this movie isn’t about her and that’s painfully apparent. Let me get some history out-of-the-way. Hollywood tried to tell the story of Walden Robert Cassotto, aka Bobby Darin, starting in the 1980s. Between 1987 and 2004, six A-list writers took shots at the script (one of which included a stark portrayal of Sandra Dee’s life), director Barry Levinson made several goes at getting it greenlit, and twenty producers took stabs at it. In terms of casting, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise were offered the script and lead role of Darin. Leonardo DiCaprio came the closest to make an earlier adaptation, but dropped out to make The Beach. Kevin Spacey had been a life-long fan of Darin and took matters into his own hands, and thus we have Beyond the Sea. The movie is one of my favorite biopics purely due to the joy Spacey takes in playing the role. I always say, in biopics it’s evident when a director/actor loves the person they’re featuring. Spacey makes fun of himself several times throughout about being too old to play the role – he was 44 playing Darin who died at 37. As a Bobby Darin movie it’s the best we’ll ever get; as for being a movie about Darin and Sandra Dee, it’s got big gaping issues.
In terms of how the movie is presented, we get a framing device similar to what we saw in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Darin is making a biopic about his life, and sequences throughout are presented from his viewpoint, as well as being reworked for the eventual movie within the movie. Case in point, there are full-scale song and dance numbers integrated into the story that make sense because this is meant to be a film production he’s creating. The world through a young Bobby’s (William Ullrich) eyes is one that literally revolves around him; there are people dancing in the street because of how wonderful he’s going to be! When little Bobby says that’s not what happened we get the immortal words of wisdom: “It’s a fantasy sequence!” Darin’s motto ends up being “Memories are like moonbeams, we do with them what we want.” That explains the shoving out of Dee in order to present a Darin that was complex, self-righteous, but hell-bent on doing what he needed to succeed. It’s a disparity that’s at odds with the loyal group of friends Darin has who mention at the beginning that Darin’s “an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” He’s childish, but other than his arguments with Dee we don’t see anything to emphasize that point. Than again, any reason to have John Goodman in your cast- here as Darin’s manager – is good enough for me. The framing device continues throughout the movie. The use of narration allows Spacey to give some snide commentary. Spacey is at his best when he’s dry and sarcastic and the narration lets him get some quality jokes in. The little boy version of Darin becomes tiresome because we get that he’s meant to be the symbol that Darin never truly grew up, but the actor is too close to The Kid from Dick Tracy for comfort (complete with heavy New York accent). The usage of movie transitions, and Darin “rewriting” his relationship with Dee has been done in other works, but Spacey is so charming and committed that it works here.
Kevin Spacey presents a bona fide Darin that you can enjoy. The accuracy in presenting Darin’s story is meticulous, and even if you know Darin’s secrets you enjoy following Spacey as he presents them to the audience. I wish that Spacey would direct more because he has a gift, particularly a flair for musical sequences. The dancing is crisp, the visuals are vibrant, and Darin’s songs are snappy, as expected. Spacey does his own singing in this film, and while he’s not as deep or polished as a classically trained singer he can hold the notes and does a good job. Of course, Spacey is too old for the role (which a character mentions to acknowledge the audience’s thoughts) and the fake nose he wears is noticeable in parts, but I haven’t found an actor who looks as eerily similar to their filmed counterpart as we see here; Spacey is Darin’s doppelgänger.
Now let’s get to the elephant in the room: the characterization of Sandra Dee. I’ve read Dream Lover, Dodd Darin’s loving ode to his parents and their relationship. I’ve not read the younger Darin’s thoughts on this movie’s depiction of his parent’s romance, but it really doesn’t do much to present it evenly. I truly recommend reading this alongside the movie. Sandra Dee led a sad life that included sexual abuse and anorexia. She passed away from kidney failure, possibly due to her addiction to alcohol, a few months after this film’s release. I wish someday a real biopic about Dee will see the light, although that looks unlikely. Kate Bosworth is beautiful, and she does well with how Dee is written, but this is not a picture of Sandra Dee. Bosworth does have a tendency to lay the petulance on thick to make you believe she’s a child (Dee married Bobby Darin at 18), but other than that there’s nothing to the character that would require stellar acting. Yes, we see Dee being controlled by her mother Mary (Greta Saachi) who reminds her “I created you.” That’s a pretty fantastic line because obviously Dee was born, nee created, by her mother but this is not a mother’s love for her child; it’s a manager’s love for their commodity. However, aside from that one moment there’s no context or backstory to Dee’s life. There’s no mention of her molestation so her fear of sex with Darin on their wedding night is chalked up to a scared virgin, not a damaged young girl whose been confused about sex due to abuse. What’s even more sickening is that Darin gives her a big speech about respecting her views, remember she’s only afraid of sex because she’s a virgin, only to have her instigate sex with him after having a full-scale meltdown. It’s a rather disturbing turn of events. I understand that this is Darin’s story, but there’s no reason Dee should be written so blandly.
Other sequences make her out to be stupid, as opposed to childlike. When she asks Bobby “What’s the Copa” it’s not a 19-year-old girl asking; in fact Dee’s age is never revealed so audiences simply believe she’s stupid. The problems in their relationship are attributed to them fighting over who’s the bigger star. Darin reminds Dee “you’re not Audrey Hepburn” and derisively calls her Gidget, while Dee doesn’t think Darin appreciates her acting accomplishments or her knowledge about the film industry. The third act devolves into making Dee the supportive/nagging/struggling wife depending on the sequence. Her alcoholism is simply labeled as the result of Darin’s travels and she quickly becomes the jealous, drunk wife before disappearing entirely until the end. The end credits make a point of saying she still loves – present tense since she was alive at the time – but that feels like they didn’t want you to end up hating her outright and this is an apology for how she’s portrayed. I realize this is Darin’s story, but other than her being sweet and a film star, there’s nothing to Dee’s character. There’s no reason she’d fall in love with him, other than it happened in real life, nor is there a compelling reason they stayed married other than they did in real life. It does a disservice to Dee’s memory, and while I praise Spacey and the Darin portion, this doesn’t present a flattering portrait of Dee.
The ending is a tad cutesy, and Spacey was obviously inspired by the ending sequence to All That Jazz. It mutes the impact of Darin’s death, but the singer went out as he lived: With a song in his heart and embracing the little boy he never let go of. Beyond the Sea is a good movie, and an affectionate portrait of Bobby Darin. Kevin Spacey is superb in the role and obviously loves Darin which shines in his performance. If you’re expecting a balanced look at Sandra Dee, and her relationship with Darin, you’re out of luck. Bosworth is good, but the script gives her nil to work with. Overall, a fond embrace to a legendary crooner and actor.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.