While Kevin Spacey is a beloved character actor -- and quite a character in his personal life as well, if you can believe the celebrity gossip mags -- he's not the man you'd immediately imagine in the lead role in a Bobby Darin biopic, portraying the epitome of hip in the days just before the hippies and the Beatles changed the showbiz paradigm forever. Spacey is older and balding, while appearing slightly depressed; Darin was young, trim, spunky, and full of piss and vinegar, as the old folks who adore him are wont to say. He was also versatile and enigmatic: a rock 'n' roller, a nightclub entertainer, and later a folksinger specializing in protest songs.
But then again, Darin also knew a thing or two about gossip rags, thanks to his tumultuous marriage to teen star Sandra Dee. And as unlikely as it seems, Spacey got his showbiz start as a singer.
"Before I left home, I appeared in musicals," Spacey explains from a Hollywood soundstage, doing the requisite parade of interviews to push his Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, which hits multiplexes this month. "I was in West Side Story, Damn Yankees, The Sound of Music. It was in high school, college, and summer stock, but I've never stopped singing."
Furthermore, he was well acquainted with Darin from the get-go: "My mother thought Bobby Darin was the greatest performer ever," Spacey continues. "I grew up in a house where Bobby Darin records were playing all the time, but it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I got interested in his story. A couple of bios came out, and I was stunned to find out what a remarkable performer he was. And how sick he was and how good he was at hiding it. He got rheumatic fever as a child -- it ravages the valves of your heart, so he had a heart condition to deal with all his life, and that was what caught up with him at age 37 when he died. But if you look at his life and his performances, even those captured in the last eight months of his life, you wouldn't even know he had a hangnail. There was something about the sheer brass of that determination to go out and give the audience your heart and soul for two hours."
With Sea, Spacey is thus pushing to give Darin the same cinematic hero's welcome the late Ray Charles just got with Jamie Foxx' Ray. "Bobby wasn't just a singer," Spacey says. "He wrote songs, he was an actor nominated for an Academy Award, he did impressions, played drums, guitar, harmonica, vibes, piano. He was probably the last great all-round entertainer that we've had in this country and, beside Sammy Davis Jr., probably the best we've ever had. 'Cause he died young and did so many things in his career, he's been kind of forgotten. We're hoping this movie will turn the spotlight on his career, and introduce him to people who may not know him."
Of course, to pay proper homage, Spacey had to learn to look, act and, most important, sing just like Darin. This made quite a few people initially uneasy. "It was Bobby's parents that were against my singing in the film," Spacey admits. "But once I explained my approach, told them what kind of movie I wanted to make, how I wanted to honor Bobby, and that I wouldn't put in anything that would damage his legacy, they got behind the film, so much so that they sent us all his original arrangements and charts for all his music, which is what we used when I started getting my voice in shape."
On that point, Spacey wasted no time. "I started working on my singing in 1999, before there was even a script or any money," he says. "I was lucky enough to work with one of Bobby's original musical directors, Bob Kellaway. We worked through the Bobby Darin catalogue, training my voice at Capital Records studios, with Phil Ramone producing. We'd go in and create backing tracks so I'd have something to rehearse to. I listen to those tracks now, and I weep 'cause they weren't very good, but that's where I was at the time. But the distance between the first session and what we did when I went in to record the soundtrack of the film is incredible."
Ultimately, Spacey even charmed his initial critics. "The family has now seen the movie, as have many of Bobby's friends, and in a way I've faced the biggest critics I'll ever have to face," he says. "They're happy with the film, so anything that comes after this, if it's a success or not, I'm happy. I made the film I wanted to make."
The eighteen tunes that made it onto the Beyond the Sea soundtrack were laid down at Abbey Road in London, with big bands and small combos playing the charts the Darin family provided. The only unknown in all this: Spacey's vocals. Great singers like Darin were also great actors, but body language and facial expression don't show when you're making a record: All the emotion has to come out in the voice, the phrasing, the catch in the throat, the implied laugh, the hesitation that conveys insecurity, the angry bitten-off word, the syllable that gets drawn out before sadly trailing off. Darin had a big bag full of these vocal tricks, like the little grunt that he inserts into "Beyond the Sea": Beyond a doubt -- uh -- my heart will lead me there soon. Is it a snicker of confidence, a grunt of frustration, or just an added rhythmic device? Like all great art, it's open to interpretation, and while Spacey nails it, he doesn't add anything to the performance.
Then there's the voice. Darin had a powerful one, brimming over with energy, humor, and simmering (but unthreatening) sexuality, a perfect blend of teen-idol horniness and adult restraint. On record at least, Spacey has none of this going on. He puts his own stamp on some of the songs with ad-libbed asides and does a creditable job of delivering the less-familiar tunes, but a whole album of Bobby Darin karaoke seems rather pointless, even as a promotion tool for a movie.
So will the brief Spacey-sings-Darin-live tour change any minds? "I'm still involved in Bobby's music, and this project, which is why I'm doing the tour," Spacey says. "'All Bobby, All the Time' is how I think of it. What's great about it is that I'll get to do a lot of the great tunes we rehearsed that are not on the album or in the movie. They didn't fit into the narrative, but now I'll have a chance to do all this music Bobby loved that he never got to record, or only did live, using all the original charts. We've been in rehearsal with a big band. Roger Kellaway is the leader, and we're having a blast."
Hopefully Spacey still knows how to grunt suggestively.
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