In 2005, English folk singer Steve Tilston was contacted by a collector attempting to verify the authenticity of a letter sent to him by John Lennon. It was written in 1971 in response to an interview Tilston did with ZigZag magazine, in which he wondered if wealth and fame would have a negative impact on his songwriting.
“Being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think,” Lennon wrote.
But Tilston had never received the letter, and first saw it 35 years after it was written.
The letter ended with “Love, John and Yoko,” and included Lennon’s home phone number. In interview footage seen at the end of the new film Danny Collins, Tilston says that he would have called Lennon, and wonders if the course of his career might have changed.
Tilston never became rich and famous, or at least, not really rich and famous, and (presumably) stayed true to his musical roots throughout a 40+ year career.
But Danny Collins, written and directed by Crazy, Stupid, Love scribe Dan Fogelman, takes this real-life starting point and imagines a world where things might play out differently: what if the musician had sold out, became rich and famous and lived the sex-&-drugs lifestyle of a rock star, and then received the Lennon letter.
The scenario is obvious, but Danny Collins has one real plus: Al Pacino in the titular role of the aging rocker who hasn’t written a song in 30 years and finds himself crooning the same old shit to his adoring fanbase of senior citizens chewing on licorice throughout his concerts.
Collins has it all, which includes millions of dollars, his face on billboards and buses, a hot young wife less than half his age (Katarina Cas), plenty of whiskey and cocaine, and a best friend and manager (Christopher Plummer) who takes care of everything for him and delivers that letter from Lennon as a birthday present, 40 years overdue.
Collins has already had enough of this lifestyle, and the letter is enough to tip him over the edge into re-claiming his integrity and artistic ambition. That includes indefinitely moving into a Hilton in small town New Jersey and trying to come up with some new material (with a little push, the songwriting sequences here could have easily ended up in the Ishtar vein).
He also tries to reconnect with the son he has never met, played by Bobby Cannavale, who is now married to a loving wife (Jennifer Garner) and has a 7-year-old daughter (Giselle Eisenberg) afflicted with ADHD. The family stuff here is entirely predictable, but affecting nonetheless.
Working a little better – but still rather underdeveloped – is a subplot with Hilton manager Mary (Annette Bening), who continually rebuffs Danny’s advances. Pacino and Bening have a great rat-a-tat rapport, and one wishes the film dedicated more time to their characters.
Danny Collins is light in plot, offers few surprises, and moves at what could charitably be called a leisurely pace – the 106 minute runtime feels considerably longer. But the cast does fine work: Garner and Cannavale render genuine emotion from familiar material, Bening successfully channels Diane Keaton, and Plummer has two dynamite shut-up-and-listen scenes, even if the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with his character.
And then there’s Pacino. As the aging rockstar frequently referred to as a ridiculous man, flamboyant in style yet subdued in emotion, he’s so much fun to watch here that one can recommend Danny Collins for his performance alone.
It’s an interesting role for Pacino, who has been going through the motions for a while now after the triumphs earlier in his career. The actor reached a low with films like 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill (his co-star in that film, Robert De Niro, is in the same boat), and let’s all try to forget about his participation in two of the worst-reviewed films of this century, Gigli and Jack and Jill.
But he seems to be having a minor late-career rebirth with his roles here, in Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, and David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn. None of these films are great, but Pacino – choosing his roles more carefully – is pretty great in them, and better things could be on the horizon.