Road to redemption for Danny boy, a dissolute pop star

Danny Collins (15A)

When John Lennon was asked how he felt about the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, he said:“Elvis died the day he went into the army.” He meant musically-speaking, of course. Lennon was also the man who said: “Before Elvis there was nothing.” But after he came out of the army he lost the hard rock edge he’d had before. 

Al Pacino plays a kind of post-army Elvis here, or maybe a better comparison would be to Neil Diamond or Barry Manilow. An ageing rock star called Danny Collins, he’s sold out whatever talent he might have had way back when for the fast buck. He can still pack auditoriums but most of the time he’s on auto-pilot, trying to mask his self-loathing in a haze of cocaine.

One day his manager, Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) shows him a letter from John Lennon. It was written to him in 1971 apropos an idealistic interview Collins did that year. Lennon ends the letter asking him to ring him.

Collins never got the letter. A greedy magazine editor intercepted it. Anticipating that it might be worth a lot of money some years down the road, he kept it for himself. When he died it went up on eBay. As the film begins, Grubman presents it to Collins as a birthday gift. 

When Collins sees it a red flag goes up in his mind. He starts to have ‘what if’ thoughts. What if he’d rung Lennon in 1971? What if he stuck to his original dream of making good music instead of the kind of crowd-pleasing dross that’s made him rich? 

He’s shocked into an awareness of how his life has gone, how he’s replaced the raw purity of 1971 with drink, drugs and meaningless marriages. “I’m just a court jester with a microphone,” he tells Grubman. He says he’s going to cancel a world tour he’s just starting. He also breaks off a relationship with a cheating fiancée (she’s young enough to be his grand-daughter). When Grubman tells him he thinks he’s having a breakdown, Collins replies: “I’ve been broken down for 40 years.”

He books into a New Jersey hotel. He has a piano put into his room. He flirts with a jolly hotel manager, Mary (Annette Bening). Then he goes in search of his son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) whom he abandoned at birth. Tom is now a grown man. He tells his father he wants nothing to do with him.

But Danny slowly ingratiates himself into his affections. And into those of his wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and their hyperactive daughter, the appropriately named Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).

The number of films trading on an ‘ageing rock star on the road to Damascus’ theme is staggering but the formula gets a new airing here, thanks mainly to the hilarious performance of Pacino and a whip-smart script. It’s a moving directorial debut from Dan Fogelman. As for Pacino, an actor who’s probably played everything but a middle-of-the-road crooner in his jam-packed career, this must surely be the last box to be ticked.  

The plot is based on the circumstances of Steve Tilston, a British musician who received a letter from John Lennon 34 years after he wrote it.

Some viewers may find parts of the film in poor taste but its intentions are honourable.

“I haven’t been grounded in my life,” Pacino said after making it, “I’ve gone through the beatitudes, the highs and lows, but kept looking for the middle.”  

*** Very Good