Biopic sounds good but leaves out much

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Biopic sounds good but leaves out much

My father, who has worked for years in both television and live theater, prefers the latter because it lets him “act for more than 30 minutes a day.” But the media are in fact quite different. The stage musical is a unique theatrical form, often as much a feat of athleticism as of acting. Theater actors have to play all the way to the back of the balcony, from which they appear perhaps 9 inches tall. It’s difficult to hurl believable emotion across that kind of expanse.

Film actors don’t usually have to worry about such things. The screen can make their heads alone 9 feet tall, and the quietest whisper can be piped straight into the ears of every megaplex patron. So what then of the film musical? Performances that combine movie sensibilities with stage charm, like Richard Gere’s in “Chicago,” are rare exceptions these days. The conflict between the theatricality of the stage and the immediacy of film is what makes this genre almost universally awful. One recent example is the film version of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” musical (my dad actually had a small role in that one), which simply slapped the stage play up onto the screen with little attention paid to where the camera was, much less how to properly adapt the story for the screen.
“Beyond the Sea” is closer to a docudrama with songs than a full-on film musical, but it has all the same problems. The story is that of Bobby Darin, the ’50s rock singer who rose to stardom with “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” before transitioning into jazz with a smash recording of “Mack the Knife” and the film’s title song. Kevin Spacey writes, directs and stars in the film.
Probably the greatest achievement of the film is its soundtrack ― Spacey, as Darin, sings his own songs. His voice is smooth and confident, and though he adds unnecessary flourishes to Darin’s more showy pieces, the vocals and instrumentation are usually as pleasing to the ear as the originals.
Reflected in this is the purpose of the film as Spacey has said ― to introduce a new generation to Darin’s music, not necessarily to tell Darin’s story. Certainly, Darin’s is a tale that would inspire Pavlovian salivation in TV movie producers: He was born sick and bedridden to a poor Italian-American family in the Bronx and later dealt with marriage and career difficulties, all the staples of the genre.
Most filmgoers of my generation are unlikely to know who Darin was, and with nothing to set the story of “Beyond the Sea” apart from other celebrity biopics they’re unlikely to feel they know much more about him by the end. The real shame is that the film leaves out large parts of Darin’s real life because they didn’t fit the formula, such as the whole of his second marriage, to Andrea Yeagher.
The film starts out with Spacey, in character as Darin, recording his own biopic, and the actor playing the young Darin (William Ullrich) criticizes the real Darin for his mistakes. This show-within-a-show angle is hardly revisited, however, and the division of narrative labor between Darin and his inner child is never quite worked out.
Stage sensibilities come across on the silver screen as mere melodrama, especially with a story this whittled down and cliched. It’s too bad, especially since Spacey really does sing wonderfully, and Darin’s music is very much worth remembering.

by Ben Applegate
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