Young Walden Robert Cassotto has inherited a love of music and show business from his mom, Polly, a veteran of vaudeville. But after a bout of rheumatic fever damages his heart, Bobby is given only a few years to live. He and his mom will have to cram as much life as possible into what remains.
Bobby goes on to defy the doctor’s odds, and the zest for living and the drive to succeed instilled by Polly push the Bronx boy into the music business, where he takes on the stage name Bobby Darin. He earns his first smash hit and appearance on American Bandstand with his song “Splish Splash” and goes on to greater success with “Mack the Knife” and "Beyond the Sea." He soon gets to live his life’s dream: headlining New York’s Copacabana Club, where greats such as Frank Sinatra had also graced the stage.
For awhile, Hollywood yanks Bobby off the nightclub stage and onto the sound stage. And while filming 1961’s Come September, the 24-year-old Bobby falls in love with his 16-year-old co-star, Sandra Dee. They get married a few months later. Having two celestial beings in one small marriage soon proves to be too much for domestic tranquility, though. Sandra begins to drink too much, and he begins to stay away too much.
Then the 1960s music scene begins to leave Bobby behind, and his weakened heart begins to catch up with him. (When people think of antiwar songs and psychedelia, the name Bobby Darin just doesn’t come to mind.) He has heart surgery and stages a comeback of sorts—with his public and his family. But through the frequent use of the metaphor of a ticking watch, we learn that time is running out for the pop idol.
The Cassotto family is a strong, loving clan. Despite Bobby’s illness, his mom, sister and brother-in-law buck him up and remain supportive throughout his life. When his mom is tempted to protect him with little white lies, Bobby instructs her, “Tell the truth. You can never go wrong with the truth.” Polly encourages Bobby’s creativity by buying him a piano and other musical instruments, and without being overbearing, she encourages his ambition, too.
Presented with the chance to fulfill a dream—to perform at the Copacabana—Bobby puts the opportunity on the line by insisting that a black comedian be his opening act over the objections of the racist club owner.
Sandra Dee expresses willingness to put aside her glamorous lifestyle so that she can raise her son herself. “I don’t want Dodd to be raised by a nanny,” she says. Bobby gives good advice about the seductiveness of show business to his young son: “I had to fight my way out of the Bronx, but not nearly as hard as you’ll have to fight to get out of Beverly Hills.”
[Spoiler Warning] Bobby learns a backdoor lesson on the importance of fatherhood when, as an adult, he finds out that the woman he thought was his older sister was really his mother. The realization that he doesn’t know who his father is throws him into a deep funk and reinforces his desire to be a good father to his own son.
Encouraging Bobby’s love of music, his mom says, “God wouldn’t have made you suffer so much if He wasn’t going to make up for it later.”
A funeral is held at a church. A scheduling board at a recording studio notes that it will be closed on Friday for Yom Kippur. (In a comical note, Bobby’s not-very-bright brother-in-law wants to know why this Yom Kippur guy gets the studio to himself for that day.) A priest supervises a charity where Bobby donates his gold records and other showbiz paraphernalia.
A line in the song “Artificial Flowers” says, “There must be a heaven where Annie can play.”
Almost all the sexual content of this film is in the context of marriage. When Sandra Dee suffers wedding night jitters, Bobby says to her, “I am married to you and will be until death do us part,” and soothes her by recounting the tale that has King Arthur laying his sword in the middle of the bed between himself and Guinevere, vowing not to cross it until his bride was ready. Bobby does the same thing with a decorative sword. “I don’t care if we don’t touch for a thousand nights,” he says. They lie in bed—she’s in a nightgown and he’s in pajamas—and begin to kiss passionately before the camera cuts away. (The movie never mentions that in real life they divorced six years later.)
In a later scene, Bobby lies atop Sandra on a hotel bed (they’re fully clothed) and begins to kiss her and unfasten his pants before they’re interrupted by his manager barging into the room.
Bobby’s real mother says she doesn’t know who his father is because “there were so many men.” A young Bobby, talking to his older self, says disparagingly that she slept with half of the Bronx.
A character Bobby plays in a movie uses two crude euphemisms for female breasts. Dancers at a nightclub wear slinky, low-cut outfits.
In a fit of rage, Bobby uses a golf club to smash the windows and headlights of his car. During another temper tantrum, he smashes his own records and other souvenirs against a table. Bobby and Sandra push each other around during a spat, and later Sandra pushes Bobby down a small flight of stairs.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Bobby and Sandra frequently smoke. Many scenes are set in nightclubs where people consume alcoholic drinks at their tables. Bobby and his entourage often drink beer. During a music video-style montage, Bobby plays an Italian waiter bringing a glass of wine to Sandra’s mother. There are several scenes of people toasting with champagne or drinking wine at meals, and Bobby puts a bottle of champagne on the bedside stand for his honeymoon night.
As their marriage deteriorates, Sandra begins to drink heavily. In one series of vignettes, she’s seen slugging back martinis in quick gulps.
Bobby often gulps several pills before performances, but it’s unclear what they are. (It’s during a time when his heart is giving out, so perhaps they’re prescribed medicine.)
Other Negative Elements
Bobby is a sore loser when he learns he did not win the Academy Award for best supporting actor; he gets drunk, has a fight with Sandra and smashes his car with a golf club.
Bobby taunts Sandra about her drinking: “I really liked the way you said that with a slur in your voice.”
Speaking from the stage at a Las Vegas casino, Bobby tells the audience, “I hope you had luck at the [gambling] tables.”
"Mack the Knife” is certainly a catchy tune, but the song is about a hoodlum/murderer named MacHeath.
Actor Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, K-PAX, The Life of David Gale, Pay It Forward, Se7en) displayed the same passion and tenacity in bringing the Bobby Darin story to the big screen that Bobby Darin showed in hitting the big time. Spacey wrote the screenplay, directed it, starred in it, sang all the songs and arranged all the financing. Spacey never looks very much like Bobby Darin (and when he plays him wooing Sandra Dee, he come across far too old), but close your eyes and you’d swear you’re hearing the real thing; Spacey captures the original’s tone, inflection and pacing perfectly.
The story is set during a simpler time, and it’s refreshing to see a man set out to pursue his wife-to-be with songs and flowers—a great contrast to today’s tendency to show people jumping into bed on the first date. Unfortunately, Spacey ruins the effect by putting words into the mouths of his characters that are totally out of sync with the times, pulling audiences back into the rude, crude cinema of the '00s. To hear Sandra Dee (she played sweet roles such as Tammy and Gidget) use the f-word is jarring; most men didn't use the word back then, and to hear a 20-year-old starlet embrace it with such vigor is just too much. (The expression “swears like a sailor” actually used to mean something.) This is no small point. For it is the film's constant torrent of foul language that ultimately drags the entire story off the stage and out the back entrance.
A postscript: Many people under age 40 wonder what is the appeal of Bobby Darin. “Bobby Who?” they'll say. Even though “Mack the Knife” sits at No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 of All Time chart and Darin was among the first inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the long run this seems not to matter to many. That's OK. But (despite himself) Darin seems to have a least partially succeeded in passing on a loving legacy to his family, despite his troubled and ill-fated marriage. His son, Dodd, still loves and admires his dad, and Sandra Dee never remarried, saying that Bobby Darin was her one and only true love. Not a perfect record by any means, but it’s one that comes closer to an ideal than simply selling songs or winning Academy Awards.