Here in spirit

"Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear, and it shows them pearly white": Kevin Spacey portrays singer Bobby Darin - without lip synching.

Kevin Spacey channels Bobby Darin in 'Beyond the Sea'

Walden Robert Cassotto, a talented newcomer from the Bronx, became Bobby Darin when, struggling to make a name for himself, he glommed onto the sign above a Chinese restaurant: "MANDARIN." Though he settled on its final two syllables, no one viewing Beyond the Sea can ignore the first syllable. Ecce homo: Here was a man. If he had paused outside a Taco Bell, Bobby Darin might have been known as Robert Cobell.

It has taken 17 years, about as long as Darin's meteoric career, which ended with his death at 37 in 1973, for a film about this man's life to be made. What Kevin Spacey has done with the part and the film, as writer and director, too, is create meta-cinema, a film in which Darin self-consciously assembles his life as a film.

Beyond the Sea will naturally be compared with Ray, the life of Ray Charles as impersonated by Jamie Foxx, but apart from the fact that both Darin and Charles were made by their mothers, the two current films are as much alike as a Vegas floor show and a honky-tonk gig. Beyond the Sea bears closer kinship to It's De-Lovely, in which Kevin Kline's Cole Porter posthumously reviews his own life as a play. It is one way to reinvigorate the genre of musical biopic, especially if, like Darin, the musician suffers neither drug addiction nor alcoholism but merely relentless ambition. "I want it all," declares Darin, who has to settle for extraordinary success with recordings, live concerts, and movies, and with wooing the glamorous ingenue Sandra Dee (Bosworth). But, stricken with rheumatic fever at a tender age, Darin is uncommonly aware of his imminent mortality.

"He's too old to play this part," complains a journalist at the start of the proceedings, and the insider's joke is that youngsters Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Leonardo DiCaprio were each offered the role of Darin at earlier stages of the project. Spacey plays Darin as the posthumous impresario of his own career, so being on the other side of 37 does not detract from his rendition of a hungry young singer arriving in Manhattan and yearning to play at the Copacabana. What empowers Spacey's performance is that he does not just pay lip service to Darin's musicianship; he actually sings, and he does so with a verve that not only mimics Darin but carries the movie. Bobby Darin was already a bit retro in 1959, the year he won a Grammy for his signature song, "Mack the Knife," derived from John Gay's 18th-century Threepenny Opera. The finger-snapping mama's boy who aspired to outdo Frank Sinatra seemed quaint in the age of Elvis Presley. During the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, he struggled not to seem as frivolous as one of his wife's cloying Tammy shows. Forty-five years later, Spacey revives Darin's style of exuberant crooning, and though Sinatra is not forgotten, Spacey's Darin deserves to be remembered.

Beyond the Sea

Dir. & writ. Kevin Spacey; feat. Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Greta Scacchi (PG-13)
The decision to have the grownup Darin converse throughout with his prepubescent self is a clumsy plot contrivance, especially since the kid comes across as a juvenile prig determined that everything conform to the facts. But the device sets up a dialectic between realism and fantasy that explains the film's design. "I'll give you some truth," says the boy, to which his older self responds: "Memories are like moonbeams. We can do with them what we want." Lit by moonbeams, Beyond the Sea goes beyond the truth of biographical data to provide, through elaborate dance sequences and nightclub performances, not the facsimile of a life as much as a channeling of it. "Performing is my life," Darin declares, and it is through Spacey's vibrant performance that Beyond the Sea gives new life to old Bobby Darin.

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