Danny Collins begins with a quirky breath of fresh air. “The following,” we are told, “is based on a kind of true story, a little bit.”
Here’s the true story. In 1971 a young British folk singer named Steve Tilston gave an interview to ZigZag magazine in which he expressed concern at the thought of becoming rich and famous; would it negatively effect his songwriting? Tilston went on to a career of, if not wealth and fame, at least steady success in various genres, both as a solo artist and in groups. As of this writing he is alive and well and still working.
What Tilston never knew was that no less than John Lennon read his interview in ZigZag and wrote to him about it. Lennon, who should know, assured the fledgling musician that “being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think.” The letter was never delivered, and Tilston knew nothing about it until 2005, long after Lennon’s death, when a collector contacted him to verify its authenticity.
This is the “little bit” that writer-director Dan Fogelman expanded into Danny Collins. Fogelman is a writer of real, if hit-or-miss, talent: for every Cars or Crazy, Stupid, Love on his résumé, there’s a Fred Claus or Last Vegas to pull down his average. With Danny Collins he takes the ball from Steve Tilston (who was hired as a consultant) and runs with it.
In Fogelman’s version, the nonrecipient of Lennon’s letter isn’t a steady but unspectacular success; he’s Danny Collins (Al Pacino), a superstar who performs before massive crowds in the kind of arena where it takes 10 minutes to get from his dressing room to the stage. Think Neil Diamond or Frank Sinatra. Danny is a star so instantly recognizable that a visiting Martian, seeing him greeted by strangers on the street, could be forgiven for thinking his name is “Holy Shit!” For all that, the only example we hear of Danny’s long parade of top-10 hits is “Hey Baby Doll,” a rock ballad that sounds just as awful as its title suggests.
And there’s the rub. Despite his money and stardom—the Bel Air mansion, the Hefty garbage bags of cocaine, the girlfriend young enough to be his granddaughter (Katarina Cas)—Danny squirms. When his manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) presents him with that recently discovered letter for his birthday, it plunges Danny into a where-did-I-go-wrong late-life crisis.
Danny resolves to reclaim somehow that budding young artist who worried about what money and fame would do to him. For starters, he travels to New Jersey, where he tracks down the biological son he’s never met, the product of a one-night stand with a groupie during his drug-hazy youth. The son is Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), a working stiff with a pregnant wife, Samantha, (Jennifer Garner) and daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Tom has always known who his father was, but never cared if he ever met him, and he isn’t pleased now that he has. “What are you doing here?” he asks. “What do you want?”
They are reasonable questions, and Danny tries earnestly, if sometimes maladroitly, to answer them. Meanwhile, he flirts with Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), the manager of the modest hotel where he’s staying, who holds him at amused, indulgent arm’s length. Between visits to the surly, suspicious Tom and the protective Samantha (Garner is at her wistful, delicate best), Danny plunks away at a rented Steinway in his room, wondering if he still has it in him to write a decent song. Through all this he’s hounded by his impatient manager; much of Danny’s fabulous wealth is spoken for by creditors and ex-wives, and his nationwide tour won’t wait.
Pacino sinks his gleaming teeth into the role of Danny with a gusto that’s charming and infectious. The charm spreads and coats the whole movie like butter over hot pancakes. Fogelman gives Danny no easy path; for every two steps forward he stumbles one step back, and there’s always the siren song of “Hey Baby Doll” and a mirror full of blow.
It falls to the canny Frank to offer the last word on Danny. “What I’m saying,” he tells the disgusted Tom, “is the man has a good heart. He just wears it up his ass half the time.”