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Danny Collins (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Danny Collins

Danny Collins


Starring Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Giselle Eisenberg, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Katarina Cas, Thomas Smith, Eric Schneider and Don Was.

Screenplay by Dan Fogelman.

Directed by Dan Fogelman.

Distributed by Bleecker Street Pictures.  106 minutes.  Rated R.

It has been way too long since Al Pacino has received a role worthy of his talents.  It is somewhat surprising that this feel-good comedy is the one to finally break that streak.  Though the lead character of Danny Collins is very different from Pacino in many ways (he is an aging pop star who sold out for fame), it is easy to see why this role resonated for Pacino.  It is also easy to see how he would use his own experiences in show business to inform his work and add depth to the role.

The opening scroll reads that the movie is “kind of based on a true story a little bit” and that is absolutely true.  Danny Collins is loosely based on the story of folk singer Steve Tilston, who discussed how much of a fan he was of John Lennon’s in an early 70s interview right as he was on the verge of hitting it big.  He also stated that he was worried that fame might affect his songwriting.  Turns out that Lennon wrote Tilston a letter, congratulating him on being true to his artistry and reminding him to never let stardom become more important than the art.  Lennon gave Tilston his phone number and suggested he call.  Problem was, the letter never made it to Tilston, and he did not find out about its existence until he was contacted by a memorabilia collector in 2005, nearly 35 years after it was written and 25 years after Lennon was murdered.  That is where the story leaves Tilston, though, for he never found the fame that was expected for him and his career in no way mirrored Danny’s.

Danny Collins is undoubtedly loosely based on several different artists from the time, though it appears to a certain extent that he is mostly based on Neil Diamond.  Like Collins, he was a respected singer/songwriter who started out as a terrific songsmith, but he slowly sold out his values to embrace a slick show business persona.  The first concert we see Collins giving in the film is at LA’s Greek Theater, the site of two famous Diamond live albums.  And Danny Collins’ bigger hit, “Hey, Baby Doll,” coincidentally or not sounds more than a bit like Diamond’s biggest sing-a-long “Sweet Caroline.”  Also, late in his career he made a back-to-basics move, recording some introspective (if slow-selling) artistically adventurous albums.

Then again, Collins’ entire career path doesn’t quite make sense if you think about it.  He is supposedly a long-time superstar on his third greatest hits compilation, but his fans only seem to know one song, “Hey, Baby Doll.”  Intellectually, I realize that is because the filmmakers only bothered to write two songs for the film (the rest of the movie’s soundtrack is made up of old John Lennon solo ballads), but it is a bit of cheat to the character.  He’s been recording and touring for 40 years and still the fans only want to hear one song?

Danny Collins starts with the fateful interview.  A young Danny has just released his debut album, a smart and acclaimed folk record that shows him to be a talent to be reckoned with.  Fast forward 40 years and Danny Collins has become a monument to shiny, cheesy nostalgia.  After the flop of that debut, Collins gave up his songwriting and allowed the label to pick songs for him (unlike Diamond, who was a songwriter before he was a singer and never stopped writing his own music).  He has become a huge star, complete with a swanky Beverly Hills mansion, all the money he needs, a way-too-young-for-him gold-digging trophy fiancée and a swiftly aging fan base.  And, though he won’t even admit it to himself, he has come to consider himself a joke, a hack, a marginally talented entertainer who just got lucky.

The Lennon note is a birthday gift from his long-time manager and best friend (Christopher Plummer).  He had recently found out about a letter that Lennon had written Danny in 1971, purchasing it from a collector.  Collins is overwhelmed by the letter, causing him to reflect on his entire life and career.  What if things had been different and he had received the letter which Lennon had written to him?  How would his life have changed?  Would he still be writing his own songs?  Would he have lived his crazy rock star life?  Would he still like his work, and by extension himself?

Collins decides to make some serious changes in his life.  He cancels the tour, breaks up with his clinging fiancée and decides to disappear for a while.  He also decides that he wants to meet a grown son who sprung from a backstage one-night-stand thirty years earlier.  He had always tried to pay for the kid’s upbringing, but the mother refused.  Now she had died of cancer and all attempts he had made to contact Tom (Bobby Canavale) had been met by silence.  So he moves into a New Jersey Hilton Hotel “indefinitely” as he tries to get his life back in order and maybe even reignite his passion as an artist.

While there, he flirts reflexively with the nice, apparently uninterested but “age-appropriate” hotel manager (Annette Bening), tries to play matchmaker for a cute pair of hotel employees (Melissa Benoit and Josh Peck) and attempts, haltingly, to do his first songwriting in years.  And despite resistance from his son and his beautiful wife (Jennifer Garner) and daughter (Giselle Eisenberg), Collins tries to win his way back into his family’s life.

In the long run, Danny Collins ends up taking some easy ways out and occasionally being a little lighter than necessary, however it is a surprisingly touching and enjoyable little film.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: April 19, 2015.

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