Beyond the Sea never stops trying to prove itself—much like its subject, one Walden Robert Cassotto. With a heart weakened by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, Cassotto wasn't expected to live past the age of 15, long before he rechristened himself with his celebrated stage name. But Cassotto didn't die, and Bobby Darin was born, henceforth driven by a relentless ambition to become the best he could be at everything that he did.
Starring Kevin Spacey as Darin, Beyond the Seatraces the singer's too-brief life from his early days as a nightclub act through his overnight success with the hit "Splish, Splash," his marriage to Sandra Dee (powerfully played by Kate Bosworth) and his largely unsuccessful bid to reinvent himself as mustachioed folk singer Bob Darin. The film purports to be a movie about Darin's life made by Darin himself, and that's exactly how it feels, like the go-for-broke vanity project of a man who knows he's living on borrowed time. As many have pointed out, Spacey, at 45, is already eight years older than Darin was when his bad heart launched its final, fatal attack in 1973. But not only hasn't Spacey (who, in a Darin-worthy gesture, also directed, co-produced and co-wrote the film) let such literal-minded concerns stop him—he's elected to shine a great big spotlight on them. Like Bob Fosse's phantasmagoric All That Jazz(to which it owes some, but not all, of its moves), Beyond the Seais a bejeweled dreamscape about the surreality of a life lived in show biz, and about the make-believe of the movies themselves. It's about how a performer steps onto a stage or in front of a camera and is momentarily transported into another dimension, free of mortal concerns—where a Kevin Spacey can become a Bobby Darin and where a Bobby Darin might well live forever. And it may be that, in Darin, Spacey has the best role of his career, the one that thrives on the superciliousness that is part and parcel of his own screen persona.
Put simply, the film is a dazzling and fearless piece of showmanship. From early on, when the residents of Darin's Bronx neighborhood break out into an eye-popping Vincente Minnelli–esque production number choreographed to Sid Arodin and Hoagy Carmichael's "Up a Lazy River," you can see that Spacey is on to something, that in a season brimming with superficial-bordering-on-fraudulent biopics (Rayand Finding Neverland chief among them), Beyond the Sea is the only one aside from Bill Condon's Kinsey that really gets inside the head of its subject, that pulses with his life blood. In doing so, Spacey has also crafted the only American screen musical in eons—maybe since Fosse's—with a genuine feel for the musical form, for the geometric movement of dancing bodies in brilliantly colored costume, for the expressive power of words sung instead of spoken. Whether Darin is courting Dee to the strains of the title tune or tap dancing with the spirit of his own childhood self to "As Long As I'm Singing," Spacey is constantly imagining new ways of associating image, performance and music, and it's a thrill to watch him do it. He may not be a George just yet. But there's definitely no mistaking him for a Louis.