By Ken Tucker
Updated December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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Bobby Darin: Beyond the Song

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Although it’s scheduled as fund-raising programming, which usually signifies the least offensive, blandest material possible, Bobby Darin: Beyond the Song is actually a thoughtful, exciting documentary about the pop singer who died at 37 in 1973.

As producer Bob Marty makes clear, Darin had the unfortunate luck to be an instinctively middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser at a time when rock &amp roll (primarily in the form of the Beatles) was making that sort of performer seem square. But Darin was no square. Sure, a hit like 1958’s ”Splish Splash” was silly but it was also insidiously catchy. And a year later, ”Dream Lover” was an unusually up-tempo teen ballad that put lesser young white crooners like Fabian in the shade.

Darin’s biggest hit, a swinging adaptation of the Brecht-Weill ”Mack the Knife,” was exceedingly clever — even daring, given the song’s bleak theme — for its time. Beyond the Song posits the convincing argument that ”Mack” was typical of Darin’s questing sensibility. He was a pure creature of show-biz — the excellent clips of his performances with older-generation stars like Jimmy Durante, George Burns, and Judy Garland show how much he admired their work — but he was also the rare middle-of-the-roader who pulled over to the side of the road to contemplate his place in pop.

The result, in the Beatles era, was that, as narrator Keith Olbermann notes, ”his tuxedos [became] denim” — he grew a hipster mustache, campaigned for Bobby Kennedy, and turned a folk song, ”If I Were a Carpenter,” into a hippie ballad of merit.

The documentary deals frankly with the central trauma of Darin’s adult life — the discovery that his sister, Nina, was actually his mother — and leaves you feeling that his death (from a well-diagnosed heart defect he knew would mean an early grave) was truly a loss for pop music. If you were a rock fan at the time, it was never cool to like Bobby Darin, but Beyond the Song will make you wish you’d given this hepcat the respect he deserved. A-

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Bobby Darin: Beyond the Song

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