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Los Angeles, California

BTL Reviews


By Leonard KladySpike Milligan once told an interviewer that his early days touring the English provinces with his fellow Goon Show cohorts Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe were fraught with peril. Humor is a subjective experience and sometimes the surly crowd didn’t get the joke. At the absolute worst points, the ones that threatened to erupt into physical danger, they had a tried-and-true fall-back position. They would thrust Secombe center stage and have him sing a popular standard in his marvelous baritone. Music indeed has charms to quell the savage beast.One can’t help but think of the Milligan solution while viewing Beyond the Sea and Ray, respective screen biographies of the legendary Bobby Darin and Ray Charles. Both men were musical innovators who initially gained acclaim in the 1950s, but the approach taken to these very public lives proves to be radically different. Both movies share a ragged, erratic quality anchored by singular central performances and nonetheless overcome their rough edges when they burst into song and surmount the travails, setbacks and tragedies that dotted full lives.Ray takes the more traditional approach to screen biography and one can sense a kindred spirit to Lady Sings the Blues rather than Bird. Beginning with his early years and progressing into the 1960s when the man became legend and genius, it only looks backward in the sort of fractured flashback that was popularized by French New Wave filmmakers like Alain Resnais.Charles is certainly mythic in stature and the film wrestles in interesting ways with presenting the facts—often grim—with just a hint of larger than life elements to escape the humdrum. In that regard director Taylor Hackford gets an enormous assist from Polish cameraman Pawel Edelman (The Pianist). He bathes the early years in an autumn glow that at once brings majesty to extremely humble beginnings and accentuates the nightmarish events of death, blindness and poverty that shaped the subject.As he makes his way from apprentice to master, Charles’s world becomes emotionally and psychologically darker and grayer in presentation and the character becomes the beacon. Produced on a modest budget, there’s little question that love more than dollars account for the pristine recreation of the 1940s and ’50s with adroit design from Stephen Baldwin and costumer Sharon Davis. Without pushing the period setting, each finds a simple way to visually define the moment and allow us to fill in the detail.Charles re-recorded many of his standards for the production (he died in June of this year) and their unique potency is established from frame one as the opening chords of “What’d I Say” play over stylized credits. It doesn’t require embellishment or sweetening to convey his mastery of genre and musical fusion in songs ranging from “Hit the Road Jack” to “Unchain My Heart” and “Georgia on My Mind.” Music supervisor Curt Sobel gives them their proper due and resonance and Jamie Foxx gives a transcendent performance that appears to effortlessly channel someone that broke the mold.Kevin Spacey has a greater challenge in bringing Bobby Darin back to life for more than the simple reason that it’s a stretch to see him in the role. His determination to get the project done split his attention between acting, directing, producing, financing and clearing rights for the film. And there’s the fact that Darin’s legacy has faded somewhat since his premature death 30 years ago.His approach to the life and material is considerably more ideational in presenting the facts. The frame is the conceit of a film within a film biography in which the singer commemorates his 10th anniversary in show biz. The structure repeatedly breaks the fourth wall as Spacey/Darin documents his family, obsessive drive to overcome physical and industry boundaries and flout conventional musical wisdom.Its provides an amazingly effective method to marry truth, memory and myth. Rather than slow down the narrative, when the film decides to question the veracity of a recreated moment, it provides texture and fullness to the story. It also allows for the sort of outrageous reality of bygone musicals where characters burst into song and dance to underline emotion and that’s fully realized in Darin’s fantasy courtship of Sandra Dee.Spacey shrewdly chose a crew with the moxie to push their craft to extremes and turned the financial necessity of filming in Berlin-based Babelsberg Studio into an artistic plus. Production designer Andrew Laws (Down with Love, Phone Booth) has a deserved reputation for creating viable universes from poverty row budgets and in concert with vet costumer Ruth Myers takes us backward in time with a bygone color palette reminiscent of the Technicolor era. It’s pushed even further by cinematographer Eduardo Serra, ASC who underlines the fractured reality with digital enhancements that repeatedly challenge the borders of truth and fiction.There’s also no denying that convincing Phil Ramone, who worked with Darin, to produce the music was inspired. Spacey sings the Darin canon that embraces the title tune, “Mack the Knife,” “Dream Lover,” “Simple Song of Freedom” (though “If I Were a Carpenter” is noticeably absent) and others in a style appropriate both to the subject and himself. Both men share the ability to sell a song with charm and invention.Though emotionally and artistically effective and highly entertaining, Beyond the Sea turns into a more conventional biopic as it proceeds though Darin’s final years. It falls just short of idiosyncratic inspiration but, as Milligan might observe, if you start to lose the audience, you can always get them back with a song.

Written by Len Klady

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