Friday, 14 April 2006

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Underappreciated today, but in 20, 30 years this film will be hailed as a classic

There are musicals, and then there are musicals. I once remarked to a friend that most film adaptations of musicals tended to be too mainstream and predictable: the ones that succeeded best had either a very simple and simplistic plot (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) or a happy ending (the otherwise cynical Chicago, or any of the musicals from the 1960s). Kevin Spacey presents to us a very different sort of musical, one that breaks out of every convention of musicals and conventional films, that is as complicated and convoluted as its music is enjoyable. In other words, Beyond the Sea is an audacious, ambitious attempt to create an enjoyable and intellectually busy musical.

You get the warning signs early on. Half a minute into the impressive opening number, the singer Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey) imperiously interrupts the jazz band and demands they start from the piece from the top again. Turns out everyone is on a film set, with Darin trying to make a biopic of his own life, but unable to decide on the best way to tell the story, or what to sing for his opening number. He then walks over to the editing room to view the outtake on monitors and film equipment 20, 30 years ahead of his time period, and then gets thrown a question from a reporter on the set: “Don’t you think you’re too old to be playing Bobby Darin?”

I suppose the best person to act in a musical about the most arrogant and talented singer of his era would be the most talented and arrogant actor today. That’s Kevin Spacey, who does his own singing in the movie. Incidentally he’s a great fan and admirer of Bobby Darin and to add to the bargain, Kevin Spacey directs the film as well. The film becomes as much about Kevin Spacey as it is about Bobby Darin (Just like how the character of Orson Welles became an integral part of Citizen Kane).

Back to the reporter and his question. You really don’t know if he’s addressing it to Bobby Darin (who never made an autobiopic in real life) or to Kevin Spacey. Most of the lines in the movie are like that. It’s a rather playful and clever stunt that will be appreciated by some and derided by others. It’s really creepy to see Kevin Spacey, complete with receding hairline, play the 20-something Bobby Darin and hamming it up as a teen idol singing “Splish Splash” to a studio of screaming teenagers. It’s really entertaining if you ignore that fact and concentrate on the well-sung and choreographed numbers. But if you accept that fact and keep it at the back of your head, it’s also a hoot to spot the film proclaim its own artificiality (during a flashback sequence, the child Bobby complains to the adult Bobby that it’s unreal to have the entire street filled with people dancing), especially since the receding hairline joke keeps popping up at the most unexpected moments.

I’m happy to say that it’s possible to ignore all this if you feel such gimmicks are too artsy or tedious. Kevin Spacey dances and sings pretty well, and is a decent facsimile of the real Bobby Darin, a frail but determined and arrogant singer who sang his way to the top. In fact, he’s a much better actor than Bobby Darin. Aside from the singing, the accompanying big band music is authentic and lively, and the jazz and pop music manage to bring back the heady feel of the 1950s and 1960s. The sets – whether outdoors or in the nightclub scenes – are a colourful feast for the eyes.

The director, over-clever as he may be, does demonstrate quite clearly his admiration of and identification with the often-misunderstood Bobby Darin. There is no better actor to portray the singer. Co-stars Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn round up the piece with memorable performances. In fact, you will be delighted at the surreal but touching ending, where Spacey shows he can share the stage with someone unexpectedly talented as himself.

First published at incinemas on 20 April 2006

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