WASHINGTON - Bobby Darin's name doesn't exactly jump to mind when talk turns to the greats of American music. Kevin Spacey is committed to changing that.
"The big motivation for doing this movie has been to turn the spotlight back on Bobby," says Spacey, whose cinematic take on Darin's life, Beyond the Sea, opens in theaters today. "Other than Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, Bobby Darin had more hits in more genres than almost any other recording artist. He also played the drums, he played the vibes, he played the guitar, he played the harmonica, he played the piano. He did impressions, he danced, he was an actor ... "
Spacey pauses for a moment, out of nouns, but nowhere near out of praise for a singer he says he's wanted to bring to the screen "since I was in my 20s." The Oscar-winning actor, 45, is too much the seasoned pro to act carried away with anything, but he's clearly thrilled to have been entrusted with the task of resuscitating the singer's legacy.
Darin, born Walden Robert Cassotto, was a sickly kid from the Bronx - a bout with rheumatic fever left doctors predicting he wouldn't make it to 20 - who first hit the pop charts with "Splish Splash" in 1958, won a pair of Grammys for "Mack the Knife" the next year, married angelic actress Sandra Dee in 1960, earned an Oscar nod in 1964 for Captain Newman, M.D., then dabbled in country, R&B, even folk before dying of heart failure in 1973 at age 37.
"My mother was a huge Bobby Darin fan," Spacey says, noting childhood memories of the orchestra-heavy, up-tempo swing music Darin was known for in the early 1960s. "I grew up in a house where that brassy sound, Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Darin - I grew up in a house like that. For my mom, Darin was the one. By the time I was 12, she had completely converted me."
Spacey clearly hopes Beyond the Sea will do to 21st-century audiences what his mother did to him, but getting the film made was no easy task. For starters, he had to convince his financial backers that there was an audience out there for a movie centered on a crooner whose last hit was released in 1967.
"The argument I would be told was - and this is a philosophy, not one I cotton to - `It's a great script, an interesting story, great music, and I love it. But how many people have ever heard of Bobby Darin?' They would say, `The only reason people go to movies about famous people is if they already know about them.' And I say, `Why doesn't that philosophy work for fictional characters?' People go to movies every day of the year about characters they've never heard of. What brings them to the theater? If it's a good story ... then people will go."
Dressed in the sort of black two-piece that never goes out of style, a look that exemplified Darin's laid-back, nightclub-oriented persona, Spacey speaks of the late singer as though the two were confidantes. It's the sort of passion one develops after spending more than 10 years dreaming of something. He finally got the screen rights to Darin's story about five years ago, after several attempts to put together a project, by Barry Levinson and a host of prospective screenwriters, failed.
"I didn't want to make a movie where people had to pass a litmus test of actual information about Bobby Darin in order to enjoy the movie," Spacey says. "I think his is kind of a classic American story, of someone who overcame hardship, difficulty - in his case, a medical condition."
Spacey's film, in which he sings himself, uncannily replicating Darin's hepcat singing style, opened to positive reviews at September's Toronto Film Festival. Although no one knew it when the movie was in its formative stages, Beyond the Sea is coming out in a year packed with musical biographies, including Ray, with Jamie Foxx portraying Ray Charles, and De Lovely, with Kevin Kline offering his take on Cole Porter.
Spacey believes he can only benefit from such company.
"It means the Bobby Darin film does not open in a vacuum this year. I think that maybe those films are laying a very fertile ground for what we've done, which is a more unconventional telling of the story. Ours is almost more of a fantasy than a straight bio-flick. If people enjoyed those movies, then I think they'll enjoy this one."
Still, if Darin's story is so compelling, why have more than three decades passed with nary a big-screen biography in view? As young as Darin was when he died, Spacey notes, most of his fame was packed into just a few years early in his career. For dramatic purposes, he may have actually lived too long. Sick kid tops the charts at age 22, has the year's No. 1 record at age 24, dies at 25 ... that would have been a movie everyone could get behind.
"Just think about it," Spacey says. "If he'd done `Mack the Knife' and then died, he'd be James Dean. But because he didn't die at his peak, and because he's gone through all of these genre changes ... and had to some degree gone out of favor, his legacy is not as strong as it would be if he'd lived a long life and done one thing brilliantly."
Still, as much as Spacey loves Darin's music, as much as he appreciates the drama of Darin's life story, the two entertainers connected on a more basic level. For as much as Darin enjoyed his success as a singer, what he really wanted to do was act; even the liner notes for an early greatest-hits album, The Bobby Darin Story, treat his singing career as more a means to an end.
"He wanted to be an actor," Spacey says, "and I think that's what he is. You watch the way he performs a song - he's not just singing them, he's telling a story."