Mack Is Back!

Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin biopic Beyond The Sea says a lot about Spacey's bravado and love of performing, but aside from a broad outline, it doesn't do much to explain Darin. The movie treats Darin's long foray into folk music as a whimsical dalliance, but his interest in protest-minded roots music actually started in the early '60s and stretched to the close of the decade. The material on Songs From Big Sur comes from the self-released albums Born Walden Robert Cassotto and Commitment, as well as scattered singles and unreleased tracks from the period when a stricken Darin, bummed out by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, worked his own corny political poetry into songs that were lightly funky, tending toward bubblegum. But Songs From Big Sur isn't mere faux-hippie kitsch. Whatever the dopey metaphors of songs like "The Harvest" or "Me & Mr. Hohner," their twangy rock sound is reasonably gritty, and Darin's elastic vocals bend to fit the offhandedly peevish tone. And on the John Sebastian-esque "Distractions (Part 1)," Darin speaks honestly and humorously about what it's like to be a celebrity who cares.

Most mini-biographies of Darin count the folk-rock period as the final stage of his mercurial career, but Spacey's movie accurately recalls the real final stage: a triumphant return to Vegas and a stage spectacular that highlighted Darin's full range. The DVD Mack Is Back!, culled from the tapes for a 1973 NBC TV special, shows the fully synthesized Darin swinging through his old hits and surveys of the then-current pop landscape (Simon & Garfunkel cover inclusive). Darin plays multiple instruments, dances, does impressions, tells stories about his adventures in the music industry, and works up a sweat trying to keep the audience engaged for every last second of his show. The music verges on pap at times, but Darin himself is never less than electrifying, and the DVD's bonus material—footage from other TV appearances, movie trailers, and home movies intended for a self-produced documentary—showcases a man of rare vision. Darin failed creatively as much as he hit, but his personality made even the silliest musical venture sound reasonable and right.

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