Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting it Wrong, Getting it Right: Beyond the Sea and Ray

Whenever Hollywood produces a film biography of a famous figure it’s seldom about the nature of their genius. More often than not, it’s a redemption story. Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), for example, contained little of the John Nash one found in Sylvia Nasar’s intelligently absorbing 1998 biography. Where she thoughtfully examined how the schizophrenia of this mathematical genius became permanently intertwined with his gift, the movie is about how John Nash gets redeemed by love. Often an assumption gets made by producers that audiences won’t respond to the unique gifts of the film’s subject so they conceive a concept perceived as accessible to a mass audience – a concept that ensures box office success and potential awards. The irony, of course, is that without the special gifts of a John Nash there wouldn’t be a movie about him in the first place. Back in 2004, there were two radically different movies made about two great American musical figures (Bobby Darin and Ray Charles) that attempted to get at what made these artists fixtures in American popular culture – but only one of those films got there.

Beyond the Sea, the story of ‘50s pop singer Bobby Darin (“Splish Splash,” “Dream Lover”), was clearly a labour of love for director Kevin Spacey (who also played the role), but it’s a labourious picture to sit through. Spacey seems to be trying to outdo just about every Hollywood musical ever made by promiscuously using every genre cliché in the book. He doesn’t try to make sense of Bobby Darin as both a singer and aspiring actor; Spacey resorts instead to boyish hero worship. Kevin Spacey frames the story using a tired conceit featuring Darin making an autobiographical movie and, while he views the picture’s rushes, comes to understand the difference between his pop image and the reality of his life. But Spacey doesn’t clarify what made Darin different from the bland teen idols of his day. There’s no mention of how Darin became part of the second generation of Tin Pan Alley, which would come to include performers like Neil Sedaka, Carole King and Neil Diamond. We never grasp what drove Bobby Darin to become an actor who was attracted to diverse roles in movies like the 1962 Pressure Point (where he played an incarcerated American Nazi). Darin would write a piece about playing against type in this movie for Ebony Magazine where he wrote that “I will get hate letters from both sides for my role, or I will have failed. And if I’m any kind of hero in this picture, then we’ve defeated the whole film.” None of that aspect of his personality comes across in Spacey’s portrait. Darin would also earn an Academy Award nomination the next year for his shell-shocked pilot in Captain Newman M.D. (1963), but Beyond the Sea is simply about the rise and fall – and final redemption – of Kevin Spacey’s idol.

Although the picture is aggressively ambitious, there isn’t an ounce of common sense anywhere in it. When Spacey performs Darin’s songs, the renditions come across as creepier than mimicry – he treats the songs as a personal fetish. Worse, when Darin puts the moves on actress Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), he suggests a lecherous old man rather than a romantic matinee idol. Besides being beyond belief, Beyond the Sea is a major disaster by a major talent.

If Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea is an example of a Hollywood musical biography gone painfully wrong, Taylor Hackford’s Ray, about the great R&B artist Ray Charles, is about getting it right. Getting it right begins with the casting of Jamie Foxx in the title role. Not only does Foxx capture the wary soul of this American genius, who radically fused gospel, blues and country into a potent musical force, he also displays Charles’s great warmth. Although Foxx sings some of Ray Charles’s early material, he lip-synchs the later hits. But he’s so utterly convincing in the part that, like Jessica Lange’s Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985), he goes far past mimicry.

Ray sits firmly in the grand commercial tradition of Lady Sings the Blues (1972), about Billie Holiday, and What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), about Tina Turner. But Ray goes further in dramatizing the art of its subject than those previous pictures did. Hackford delves into his early childhood in the South, going blind, riding the chitlin’ circuit with blues artist Lowell Fulson (Chris Thomas King); his landmark years with Atlantic Records recording such gospel flavoured R&B classics as “I Got a Woman” and “Mess Around”; and his late period with ABC-Paramount recording the sublime “Georgia On My Mind” and the snappy “Hit the Road, Jack.” But Hackford doesn't just chronicle the life of Ray Charles with stops along the way for his songs. He illustrates how the songs grew from Charles's experiences as a black American coupled with his need to bring the roots of genre music into a whole new arena.

While the film deals squarely with his womanizing and his heroin habit, unfortunately, the domestic scenes with his wife Beatrice (Kerry Washington) are poorly structured. Hackford gives us no sense as to why she wants to stay married to him. On the other hand, Regina Taylor’s powerful performance as Marjorie “Margie” Hendricks of Ray’s back-up group, The Rayettes, is a beauty. Sharing both his bed and his music, Taylor delves hungrily into Hendricks’ sexual passion for Charles and how it equaled her desire to perform his music.

If Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea leaves you in the dark about the pure talent of Bobby Darin, Taylor Hackford’s Ray can make you see the light about the genius of Ray Charles.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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