Saturday, September 17, 2005

Somewhere, Beyond the Sea... Bobby Darin

[Am I seriously doing a post on Bobby Darin? Yes: why limit myself only to cheesy Indian music? If I can comment on "Bunty aur Babli," can I not comment on "Splish Splash, I was taking a bath"?]

Last night, we watched the Kevin Spacey film Beyond the Sea, a biopic of the 1960s pop singer Bobby Darin. As biopics go, it was pretty bad. (Hint: If you're looking for a wonderful American musical, watch the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely instead. Or last year's Ray, or even Down With Love.). Still, I'm a fan of Darin's music, and fortunately there is quite a lot of it in Beyond the Sea. It's also commendable that Kevin Spacey sings Darrin's tunes himself; he doesn't sound quite like Bobby Darin, but he does have a good voice, and really knows how to dance. In the end, I would recommend this film as a rental to people who like this kind of music. Just be prepared to fast-forward the stilted dialogue to the musical numbers. (Sort of like... Salaam Namaste)

It's often said that the musical genre is dead in Hollywood. But it's not strictly true; today's Hollywood musicals are generally "art films." Even Chicago was pretty much an art film; it only became commercially viable because of its "Oscar contention" reputation. One key difference is, of course, that in films like Chicago and here in the considerably less impressive Beyond the Sea, the actors are mainly doing their own singing.

Many Bollywood fans are embarrassed by the continued popularity of the musical, and point to the emergence of non-musical Hindi films as a sign that Indian audiences and filmmakers are maturing. I think that's a red herring. I say, keep the music; it's one of the things that really makes Bollywood distinctive. Real maturity will come to the industry once Bollywood films are shot in sync-sound, with actors start singing their own numbers.

On to Bobby Darin.

Darin's singing style wasn't especially original; he became a pop star imitating Elvis Presley, and matured as an artist imitating Frank Sinatra. After he moved away from cheesy rock songs like "Splish Splash," Darin's first jazz/big band hit was the jazz standard "Mack the Knife," a Rat Pack favorite. He just about nails it; in my view, the only version of "Mack the Knife" that's better than Darin's is Louis Armstrong's. (Eartha Kitt, I seem to recall, has a pretty brilliant version as well.)

Darin wasn't just a studio puppet. He wrote hundreds of songs, including some of his own biggest hits. He also helped start Wayne Newton's career, with "Danke Schoen" (the song that everyone remembers from Ferris Bueller's Day Off).

No point recounting the details of Darin's life here (a detailed, if worshipful, bio can be found here). Darin married Sandra Dee, aka "Gidget." They had a kid, but it was not a happy marriage. Between Darin's ego, his heart problems, his wife's anorexia, and their general struggle to stay relevant through the 1960s, there couldn't have been a whole lot of joy there. Kevin Spacey's film glosses over their divorce, and doesn't mention the fact that Darin remarried the year he died. It also doesn't say anything about the women Darin dated before he met Sandra Dee. The film also pays lots and lots of attention to Darin's toupee, which is, well, obvious, but does it need to be addressed in every scene?

Darin was an Italian from the south Bronx -- his real last name was Cassotto. Beyond the Sea suggests he got the idea for his stage-name when he saw a neon sign above Chinese restaurant: "Mandarin House." The lights for the letters "m" "a" "n" were out, leaving just "Darin." I don't know how true that is.

In the later 1960s, when his singing and film careers had essentially fizzled, Darin became an outspoken progressive, and publicly supported Bobby Kennedy in 1968. After Kennedy was assasinated, Darin wrote a protest folk song called "A Simple Song For Peace." It's a little insipid, but aren't all protest songs insipid? (The one exception to the rule might be John Lennon's "Imagine," and even that gets pretty unbearable after a little while.)

Bobby Darin died of complications from open heart surgery in 1973. He was just 37 -- younger than Shah Rukh Khan, Brad Pitt, or Keanu Reeves at the present moment

Recommendations. I like Bobby Darin's jazz ballads and swing songs more than his late 1950s rock songs. Favorites include: the afore-mentioned "Mack the Knife," "Beyond The Sea," "Call Me Irresponsible," "Hello, Young Lovers," "I'm Beginning To See The Light," "I Got Rhythm," and "More Than The Greatest Love."

In terms of films, the only good Bobby Darin film I've ever seen is the racially-charged film Pressure Point. Darrin plays a racist psychopath, and Sidney Poitier is his shrink. The film has a nicely edgy, paranoid feel to it, and incorporates an almost Hitchockian amount of Freudian psychobabble into the story.

And there you have it -- a post on Bobby Darin.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, I like how you're unafraid to display the more questionable parts of your taste register.

But calling "all" protest songs insipid is a bit over the top and more that questionably "off." How about Dylan, like with 'Masters of War'? That song still burns. Or, bringing it into our era, what about NWA or Public Enemy, that stuff is still protest music and it can be raw and searing even if you're dancing to it.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Ok, maybe I should have said "60s unity protest songs." I was thinking of songs like "Give peace a chance" or Peter, Paul & Mary.

Dylan's "Masters of War" is biting and harsh, and definitely far from insipid. A song with similar bite is Elvis' Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down," which takes on Margaret Thatcher.

Protest rap is in a different category, mostly because it isn't really pop music. In addition to Public Enemy's blistering "By the time I get to Arizona" (I never cared much for NWA), I would add in more recent groups like Dead Presidents ("It's Bigger than hip hop").

On the question of my bad taste, thanks for for showing me a little mercy. I think I used to try to cultivate better taste (latest CDs, music rags, etc.), but I realized that is a sure way to have no taste at all.

Arguably, anyone who takes honest (non-kitschy) pleasure in Bollywood is going to be questionable to the Village Voice taste tyrants anyways. Maybe I can't be as 'down' as Sasha Frere-Jones, but I'm not going to pretend that I like "grime" or "bahia funk"...

12:36 PM  
Blogger Jabberwock said...

Great post, makes me want to rush out and collect all the "Super Oldies" records I used to listen to religiously as a child. And I never thought I'd come across someone else who's seen that wonderful sleeper of a film, Pressure Point.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I haven't seen De-lovely, so can't compare, but there is an older Cole Porter biopic starring Cary Grant called 'Night and Day' that is very watchable as well.

5:16 PM  
Anonymous Lucy Brown said...

Ok comment although I would not consider Beyond the Sea a musical and you can't make a 2 hour film representing 37 years of life and not leave things out, plus I think it said at the end of the movie that it made Bobby's life sort of a fairy tale looking at it through rose colored glasses...Armstrong's version of Mac better than Bobby's is just a plain sick comment made while staring at the wrong end of a gun.

6:50 PM  
Anonymous Lil Doozcoop said...

You should listen to Darin's Big Sur songs. Here are some of the themes and lyrix:

Deprivation and disenfranchisement:

"We live in a jingle jangle jungle, where you're only worth what you can buy,
so keep on workin' hard...

"I live in a jingle jangle jungle, where people die to make some green.
Turnin men to boys, making new war toys
dancin' to the noise of ticker, cant get much sicker..."
(Jingle Jangle Jungle)

"38 degrees (F) in the middle of november, the heat don't come on till it snows
Got a new mayor, he's a doer not a sayer, but what he's doin' nobody knows"
(City Life)

Injustice, civil rights, anti-authoritarianism:

"We had a revolution was gonna set us all free
Well it worked for you but it hasn't for me"
(The Harvest)

"Hey there mister black man can you hear me,
I dont want your diamonds or your game"
(Simple song of Freedom.... anti-globalisation/exploitation)

"This kind of thing can't happen here
especially not in election year"

"Buddy shake your gloom they're just here to make som room
in the clay
(Long Line he would have written a song about Guantanamo as well!)

Me and Mr Hohner has great lyrix. Beautifully constructed song about police repression! Someone ought to cover it today. Early rap would you say?

Peace and Antiwar
"Banker when you stop counting money, Soldier when you lay down your gun
Everybody dies without honour in a world nobody won"
(Maybe we can get it together)

"Seven hundred million are you listening
Most of what you read is made of lies"
(Simple Song of Freedom)

"Planted a mushroom in '45
Ha Ha nobody's alive"
(The Harvest)

And of course some greeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaat love lyrix:

"Wake up in the morning you gonna make me some tea
Cant live without ya, I'll see about ya
Won't you see about me"
(I'm goin' to love you)

"I'm a sun without a setting
And a tear without regretting
And a mind full of forgetting,
but I am.."
(I am)

And some really witty lyrix:

"Waitin for a trout to hit I get next to nature
But then I hear a giggle which becomes a laugh
And a woman of forty wants my autograph
So I sign an old napkin and she says I used to hate ya"

"I'll leave my songs to my politician friends
I'll leave my money where the manifesto ends....

"I'll leave the music to the people who can't hear
And the paranoia to the folks they fear...

"I'll leave the wars to the people who wont fight
And the mushrooms to the folks who get uptight!"
(Long Time Movin')

Most of Multiplication pretty damn witty too.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Lil doozcoop, thanks for all the lyrics! I don't know most of those songs from Darin's repertoire... will have to go do some digging at my local record stores!

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Lil Doozcoop said...

You can get "Songs from Big Sur" from Great compilation album. All songs written by Darin in the final years of his life. Did you know he gave away all his possessions, houses, cars, boats to live in a trailer at Big Sur?

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Donna Lee Copman said...

You are so wrong, wrong, wrong about Mr. Bobby Darin. He was not imitating Elvis, and he far surpassed Sinatra in breath control and the feeling with which he sang words: he uses the word "warm" and one feels warm; he uses his voice for all kinds of emotions, i.e. The Work Song. Of course Elvis and Sinatra were great - but Bobby was greater. In 15 years he recorded over 400 songs, wrote many, made 12 movies, was nominated for an Oscar, and had his own t.v. show, not to mention being Ambassador to the Heart Fund and the United Jewish Way. His song is not insipid, by the way. Remember he was young and not toally sophisticated yet, with Simple Song of Freedom. But he meant it from his heart. I suggest you listen to his song that he wrote afer Robert Kennedy was murdered, In Memoriam. That would give you some insight. I agree the movie was not good, but Bobby didn't make the film. I would have done it a whole other way, stressing his music more than other things and definitely including Connie Francis. Bobby is a legend and he is a tragic loss. There's never been anyone else like him. ~ Donna Copman

7:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen, Donna. right on the money!

Bobby rules...and while Spacey's movie was flawed, it at least showed a new generation who our heroes of yesterday were all about...


3:31 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Just to be clear, I actually enjoyed the film and I really like Bobby Darin. I don't mean to offend fans by saying he imitated Frank Sinatra. Even if he did, he brought his own particular vocals style and creativity to the table. He was a great performer, period.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not every rock performer in the 50's was imitating Elvis Presley. While most of the early rock sounded a helluva lot alike, Darin was in no way attempting to imitate the King. Songs like Dream Lover, Queen of the Hop and Early in the Morning are all unique.

Same with the Sinatra comment. Certainly every night club singer who followed Sinatra owed a tip of the cap to the Chairman of the Board, but again Darin stood out here.

And no, he wasn't imitating Dylan when he did his folk tunes.

As far as his movie performances, he did get an oscar nomination for Captain Newman MD; and received critical praise for his work in Hell is for Heroes...Too Late Blues...and others.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


9:42 PM  
Blogger Swing Band - Dominic Halpin and the Honey B's said...

Im not a fan of the film "Beyond the Sea", I think it was had to fill 37 amazing years into such a short time frame,
My Function Band perform some of his tracks, and we always get a great response from young and old, if bobby was alive today Im sure he'd be protesting something, using his talents for good

7:26 PM  

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