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Review: 'Beyond' good, thanks to Spacey

Bobby Darin biography benefits from actor's skills

By Paul Clinton

Kevin Spacey plays Bobby Darin in "Beyond the Sea."
Bobby Darin
Kevin Spacey

(CNN) -- It would be easy to dismiss Kevin Spacey's new film "Beyond the Sea" as just a movie star's vanity project. After all, this two-time Oscar winner's often-expressed passion for bringing the life of singer Bobby Darin to the big screen is well documented.

But in this film he inhabits Darin to the point where you can't escape a feeling of awe for his performance -- and a deep respect for his commitment to telling the story of this remarkably talented performer.

Spacey, who's 45, has been criticized as too old to play Darin, who died at age 37 in 1973 after emergency heart surgery. And quite frankly, at times the age difference is very apparent. But ultimately you just have to let that go and bask in the sheer joy Spacey brings to the screen while performing many of Darin's greatest hits.

Spacey not only stars in "Beyond the Sea," but he also wrote, produced and directed the movie. Therefore he was able to structure the story in a way that helps a great deal in getting past the age problem.

The film's conceit is that Darin is making a movie about his life. This movie within the movie allows us to meet him towards the end of that life as he looks back in time. In his film debut, 11-year-old William Ullrich plays Darin as a boy. Spacey -- as Darin -- interacts with the boy on the set of this imaginary movie and singer's story unfolds.

Talented people

Darin began life as Walden Robert Cassotto, raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in the Bronx. At the age of 7 he suffered a severe bout of rheumatic fever that left his heart badly damaged. He wasn't expected to live past the age of 15.

He's pampered by his family: mother Polly (Brenda Blethyn), older sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) and Nina's husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins). Polly, a former singer, infuses the young boy with a love of music and performing. His passion for singing takes over his life. It probably helped prolong it, too.

In his short 15-year career -- Darin had his first hit, "Splish Splash," when he was 22 -- he won numerous Grammy Awards, was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar and married one of the biggest stars of the era, Sandra Dee (portrayed by Kate Bosworth).

As Dee, Bosworth gives a dead-on performance, aging from a 16-year-old ingénue into a 27-year-old woman who has seen and experienced things way beyond her years.

Interspersed throughout the film are many of Darin's greatest hits, including "Splish Splash," "Mack the Knife" and the title song.

The film shows all facets of Darin's explosive talents. There are some wonderful, full-blown dance numbers choreographed by Rob Ashford, who won a Tony in 2002 for his work on "Thoroughly Modern Millie." The music was handled by Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone.

Impossible to categorize

Spacey comes through winningly: he isn't just a great actor, he's also an unexpectedly good singer -- handling the vocals himself -- and surprisingly light on his feet. (Indeed, he's been on a concert tour performing Darin songs with all of Darin's stagecraft.)

His talents were enough to win over Darin's son Dodd and former manager Steve Blauner (who's in the film, played by John Goodman). Indeed, they were so convinced of Spacey's talents they actually provided Ramone with Darin's original arrangements.

Spacey doesn't shy away from the dysfunctional areas of Darin's life. The singer struggled with depression, marital problems and career ups and downs as styles changed around him. His family also has a secret, one that Darin didn't learn until mid-career. Along the way we also witness his incredible bravery in the face of a major illness and his refusal to be categorized.

"Beyond the Sea" is Spacey's show, but it's also a solid group effort. Goodman, Blethyn, Hoskins and Aaron surround the lead with terrific performances. And even though this is young Ullrich's first film, he has been singing and dancing on Broadway in numerous musicals for the last four years and his expertise is evident.

Many people under 40 may not even remember Bobby Darin, let alone know about his remarkable life story. "Beyond the Sea" may rectify that problem and stand as a wonderful tribute to an amazing talent who left us all too soon.

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