The following is based on a kind of true story a little bit. How could you not love a film that begins with titles like that? It’s all in the tone. Danny Collins may be hyped as a real event but those titles basically tell it all.
True, there really was a singer who nine years ago discovered a letter that was sent to him forty years earlier by John Lennon – the singer’s real name is Steve Tilston – and, true, it advised the singer to basically keep it real and be true to himself, and even better, the iconic Beatle really did leave his personal phone number at the bottom. All of that really happened; that’s the little bit mentioned in the opening titles. It’s everything that follows that’s fictional, and as much fun as it is, you don’t buy any of it for a second. Danny Collins is really a wish-fulfillment, comic fairy tale that’s a lot of fun as long as you get passed the idea that Al Pacino could ever be a pop star.
Danny Collins (Al Pacino) is an aging rock singer who creatively peaked years ago. The popularity is still there – Collins is still one of the most famous names of the American pop/rock industry, plus he’s still touring – but his voice is shot. Whether he was truly any good we’ll never know; we never get to hear him in earlier days, but that doesn’t matter. All that’s important is that the man was BIG and continues to be so. His fans, all of whom have aged with him, continue to buy tickets and continue to cry out for another chorus of his biggest Sweet Caroline type sing-a-long hit, Hey, Baby Doll. “If what I just did qualified as singing,” Collins tells his long-suffering manager Frank (Christopher Plummer), “I’d be great.”
Then his manager surprises his client/friend with a letter that somehow had been missing since 1971 and has now surfaced. It’s from John Lennon and it tells the then young singer to “… Be true to yourself; be true to your music, love John.” It even has Lennon’s number at the bottom with instructions to call if the young singer wanted to discuss more. In disbelief, Collins reads the letter and from that moment, everything changes. What would have happened had Collins called Lennon back in ’71? What would they have talked about? Would life have taken a different turn? Would he have found the commercial success he’s enjoyed along with all the other tolerated rock star indulgences or would his music and his career, not to mention his basic values, have all gone in a different direction? Collins obsesses over the what ifs then makes a decision.
“I’m done,” he suddenly announces to his stunned manager as he cancels the rest of the tour. “I’ll never be forced to sing those songs again.” Considering we actually saw him growl through Hey, Baby Doll at a sold out concert at The Greek, the decision to quit is probably best for all of us. Then he hits the road solo to New Jersey in an attempt to make some serious amends with his estranged son and the family he’s never known. But making amends is not going to be easy. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to be the man you aren’t,” his disapproving son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale) tells his rock star father. “And I’m exhausted.”
The real fun behind Danny Collins is watching the cast. The story does nothing. Not only do you not believe Pacino as a rock star, the idea that this guy who has lived out every drug-induced rock ‘n roll fantasy throughout his decadent career – he can hardly remember any of it – would suddenly drop everything because of a few basic words of encouragement, even if they came from John Lennon, is really a tough sell. But when you think of it, the nonsense plot is also part of the fun.
Cannavale is just right as your average, New Jersey guy struggling to make everyday work for him and his wife, Samantha (a terrific Jennifer Garner). Christopher Plummer makes an unlikely rock star manager, but like everything else in the film, you go along with it for the simple fact that it’s always good when you get that rare chance to enjoy something new from Christopher Plummer. But it’s the scenes between Pacino and Annette Benning that really work.
Benning plays a perpetually upbeat, hotel manager; the same New Jersey hotel where Danny Collins suddenly turns up and wants a room for an indefinite period. The funny exchange at the check-in between a surprised young clerk (Melissa Benoist from TV’s Glee), Mary (Benning) and the unavoidably recognizable rock star is just how you imagine such a conversation would go. “I know who you are,” a smiling hotel manager tells the colorful celebrity.
Part of Mary’s appeal is that she can’t help but always be honest with her grounded opinions. In taste and style, she’s the polar opposite to Collins. When Collins asks her how does he look – he’s in his seventies in the middle of New Jersey with a fake tan, an earring, an open neck shirt unbuttoned down to his podgy gut revealing a hairy chest, a large crucifix hanging from his neck all while sporting a shiny, blue suit with a pink handkerchief protruding from his top pocket – all Mary can do is laugh at him and say, “You look ridiculous.” It’s not quite what he expected.
Director Dan Fogelman’s funny script is peppered throughout by John Lennon’s solo hits that comment on the fading scene. When Collins reads that forty-year old letter, Lennon’s Imagine plays on the soundtrack; when the initial meeting between rock star and estranged son goes badly, Lennon’s Cold Turkey is introduced, and when Collins celebrates at a surprise birthday party by boozing and snorting coke, Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Thru The Night underlines the action.
The cynic may raise an eyebrow and sigh throughout, but don’t be that cynic. You’ll just spoil it. Here’s what you do: Take nothing seriously; enjoy the preposterous notion of Pacino as a rock star, take pleasure in Jennifer Garner’s lecture to Collins telling him what a great daughter-in-law he’s missed out on, and savor every moment that Annette Benning is on screen. Do that and you’ll be fine.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 106 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)