For the three or four people who've paid attention to this blog over the past couple years, the following statement probably isn't shocking. I love Bobby Darin. I mean, I love Bobby Darin. When I'm feeling ground down, and that's been happening a lot lately, a surefire pick up on a particularly crappy day is to go home and throw on Aces Back to Back and swing my blues away.
Occasionally, I take a little heat from people about my Darin love. I'm not sure, but I have a feeling that's because Darin's legacy isn't quite accurate in a lot of people's minds. The reason I think that is because more than once, someone has come over to abuse my pool and vodka bar and when I happened to be spinning some Darin, they wouldn't recognize it. I'd tell them who it was and they'd get a funny face and either say, "You mean the 'Splish Splash' dude?" or, dismissive, "Yeah yeah. Mack the Knife." And from that I infer that he gets a minor blip of pigeonholed name-recognition from many people but not much else. Then, of course, by the time they've heard him sing the holy hell out of "Artificial Flowers," the martinis start going down more smoothly and they start to re-calibrate their opinion of Mr. Bobby Darin.
That makes me happy when people take a second listen to Darin. Because besides having a set of pipes that could blow the roof of the Copa, Darin was the quintessential antithesis of a one-hit wonder. Darin played the piano, drums, and guitar, along with writing plenty of his own material, and songs for others. His early incarnation was that of a teen idol, but his career took a turn when he demanded more creative control and released the jazzy-campy "Mack." And then his career went into full swing. He hit his stride as a vampy showman and sometimes torchy-saloon singer, but he was always best known for his full-swinging, jazzy style. Selling out the Copa, winning Grammys, marrying Sandra Dee, acting, and then eventually letting Vietnam change his hipster ways into that of a full-blown hippy, thus he even conquered folk music.
None of this, of course, is news to you if you've seen the Kevin Spacey biopic Beyond the Sea. And for that, I profusely thank Kevin Spacey.
Beyond the Sea isn't a perfect film. When I first heard of Spacey tackling the role of Darin, I thought, "He's too old." Already in his mid-forties, Spacey was a little long in the tooth to be playing Darin, who died, much too young, at 37. But Spacey mostly overcame this with the construct of the movie to make the pieces fit.
My second thought about the movie, upon hearing that Spacey would be doing his own singing, was, "He's fucking nuts." For real. Who in their right mind would want to be compared to Bobby Darin like that? There is no way, no fucking way, you can win. Worse, you can possibly look bad. Trying to outsing-swing Darin is kind of like trying to drive better than Ricky Bobby, trying to cook more fucked-up than Sandra Lee, or trying to out-Thetan Tom Cruise. Double Oscars are swell, but it doesn't make someone Bobby Darin. But, after seeing the movie, I realized that Spacey mostly overcame this handicap of not being Darin by having a darn good voice of his own.
Kevin, he's not Bobby. But his voice does bear more than a passing resemblance to Darin's when they're in the middle register. His lower notes lack the muscle that Bobby's had, and though he stylistically mimics and bends notes in Bobby's signature style, it's not quite as cool sounding, possibly because although Kevin's range is really good, it's not quite on par with Bobby's. But what he does capture, with both broad strokes and loving details, is Bobby's overall style. The arrangements of each piece of music are spectacular. He takes the film's namesake song and nearly doubles it in length by adding a flouncy and vibrant extended musical portion. He comes off best in the more folky or showtuney numbers, like "Simple Song of Freedom" and "The Curtain Falls." And, notably, Kevin's got a nice touch of heartbreak in his voice for the slower-tempo numbers and ballads. A bit of a nice contrast, actually, because Darin never really strikes me hard as a balladeer, with a few notable exceptions. (His "Don't Dream of Anybody But Me" slays me.)
It's on the swinging tunes that Bobby shined brightest, and I have to say, I never would've guessed that Spacey had it in him. After all that Keyser Soze and Lester Beauty business, I kind of thought he was a bit...I don't know... serious. But Kevin, he can seriously swing. He doesn't have the same chops, but he sure doesn't drown when he goes up a "Lazy River" and it's actually not a charade when he sings "Charade." Frankly, not only does Spacey have it in him, he clearly loves it. And he does it well enough that I've found myself listening to the soundtrack a few times.
If you're looking for a historically accurate picture about Darin, that's not what Spacey made. But that's also clearly not what Spacey was going for. It's romanticized, particularly his relationship with Sandra Dee. What Spacey did was give us an artistic rendering of Bobby, and in that capacity, the film is both joyfully good and heartbreaking sad. Which, of course, means it's a smashing success.
Spacey had built up an awful lot of respect, capital, and clout in Hollywood, and he cashed it all in on this one movie. Passion projects and labors of love can be dangerous territory for stars like Spacey, because they can reveal the laughable banality, off-putting ego, or utter lack of other skills that were always masked by repeating other people's words in front of a camera. But, happily for Spacey, and luckily for the audience, Kevin had the skills as a filmmaker, humility of love for his subject, and understanding of his subject's foibles to pull this all off. Every frame of the movie and every cut on the soundtrack drip not with reverence but with care and often joy.
As for Kevin's acting like Darin. Well. My frame of reference is different from Spacey's, because I was a baby when Darin died. So I never really knew much of the man as a person. But I'll trust Spacey on it. I don't really know if the big old schnoz he plastered on his face was necessary as part of the rendering. Yeah, we get it. Bobby had a nice Roman nose. Thing is though, Bobby's nose fit him and he was still kinda cute. But Spacey deformed his face a little with that nose and it was just distracting. But, Spacey didn't do it to mock but because his instincts told him it was right, so I can accept that. Also, okay, maybe it was a little funny. And, really, how can I question his acting? He's Keyser Soze, man! I always liked Spacey, even if he didn't really hold a place as one of my lovable favorites. But with his singing and dancing and fighting with Sandra onscreen, he really did bring the man to life for me in a way I'd never known him.
Honestly? It all kind of makes me jealous of Spacey while admiring the hell out of him. I'm jealous because he was able to go ahead and create something he was so obviously into, and do it so damn stylishly. But I also admire him because it would've been an awful lot easier for him to not take the gamble and just keep cashing paychecks for bullshit like "K-Pax." It's just so very clear that he followed his heart on this, and his heart took him to a great place and gave an awful lot to other Darin fans like me.
I don't think the flick was a huge commercial success, but I know that Spacey kept saying his major intent was to introduce a new generation to Bobby Darin. And that is a worthwhile goal. Part of me loves Kevin now for making me feel like less of a dork for having such an affinity for Darin's music. You know, because movies totally validate our existence and all. Maybe only fans flocked to the theatres for its initial release, but as the movie now pops up on cable channels every so often, I can't imagine that at least a handful of people who watch won't be piqued enough to look into Darin a bit more.
And if it brings even one person around to checking out and discovering the awesome that is "Darin at the Copa," Spacey oughta feel damn good about himself, because he just increased the happiness in the world by a little bit.
Bobby Darin said that his wish was "to be remembered as a human being and as a great performer." And that's why I now also love, love Kevin Spacey. I don't know if he realized he was doing it as he was making Beyond the Sea, but Kevin has helped make that last wish for Bobby Darin come true.
Spacey has recently said that he no longer cares about his acting career. I think people have misinterpreted that comment to mean that intends to not act in film and continue his work at London's Old Vic. What I think Spacey was really saying is that he hit the peak and did what he wanted and he's not into the game of being tops in Hollywood anymore, but that he'll still take roles. Whatever he meant, I wish him nothing but the best.