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Danny Collins

D: Dan Fogelman / 106m

Cast: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer, Katarina Cas, Giselle Eisenberg, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Nick Offerman

In 1971, young folk singer Danny Collins is on the verge of stardom. His first album, featuring songs he’s written himself, is about to be released, and he’s about to give an interview for Chime magazine that will attract the attention of one of rock music’s most well-known performers (and one of Danny’s idols).

Fast forward to 2014 and Danny is touring in support of his third greatest hits album. He no longer sings his own material, and hasn’t written a song since he made his first album. His signature song is a track called Baby Doll, and his fans want him to sing it before anything else. With his audience aging as much as he is, Danny relies heavily on cocaine and booze to get him through his day, and he has a young girlfriend, Sophie (Cas), he’s thinking of making his fourth wife. When his birthday comes round, his manager and long-time friend Frank Grubman (Plummer) hands him a special present: a letter written to him by John Lennon in response to the Chime interview. In it, Lennon offers the young Danny help in avoiding the pitfalls of being famous in the music business, and even includes his phone number.

Danny is shell-shocked by the idea that Lennon could have changed the course of his career. Feeling that he’s wasted the last forty-plus years, he decides it’s time to make some changes. He catches Sophie with another, younger man, but isn’t angry; instead he tells her he’s going away for a while and to enjoy their home for a little longer (though he makes it clear their relationship is over). He travels to New Jersey and stays at a Hilton hotel with the intention of going to see his son who lives nearby but with whom he’s had no contact. He also begins writing a new song, while attempting to woo the hotel manager, Mary Sinclair (Bening). And when Frank comes to visit him, Danny tells him he doesn’t want to continue with the tour either.

Danny visits his son’s home, and meets his daughter-in-law Samantha (Garner) and his granddaughter Hope (Eisenberg). When his son Tom (Cannavale) arrives home he makes it clear he doesn’t want anything to do with Danny. But Danny perseveres, both with his new song, wooing Mary, and by arranging for Tom and Samantha to have an interview for a special school that will deal with Hope’s ADHD. As he begins to make headway with his new life, Danny learns that he’s not as financially secure as he thought, and going back on tour is his best option. But then Mary challenges him to play his new song at his next gig…

Danny Collins - scene

The idea of Al Pacino playing an aging singer trying to reconnect with his lost youth and aspirations seems like the perfect excuse for a stark, emotionally compelling drama, but writer/director Dan Fogelman has other ideas. Instead of dark and challenging, he’s gone for wistful and comic, with a side order of restrained sentimentality. Add in slices of romance, personal regret, misdirected anger, and selflessness, and you have a comedy that pokes fun at Danny’s lifestyle and sense of himself – “No, I’m sharp!” – but does so without laughing at him.

When we first meet him in 1971, Danny is anxious, mildly confident, but absolutely terrified of the thought he might be famous. When we see him again he’s a tired, unhappy man going through the motions of being famous, and his terror has given way to a weary resignation; this is his life, for better or worse. When he’s given the letter by Lennon, it opens his eyes both to the life he’s living, and the life he could have had. Pacino effortlessly portrays the sad realisation that Danny has in that moment, and the viewer can feel the sense of self-betrayal coast off of him in waves. It’s the movie’s most effecting moment, and Pacino is flawless. And from that, Danny regains a sense of purpose, a drive he’s not had in years, and the new Danny is funny, immensely likeable, supportive of others to a fault, and willing to own up to his mistakes. It’s a sea change that could have appeared unlikely or unconvincing, but Pacino, ably supported by Fogelman, brushes aside any apprehensions the viewer might have, and strides on imperiously like a rejuvenated force of nature.

With Pacino giving one of his best performances in recent years, Danny Collins is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, with equally impressive supporting turns from the always dependable Bening (perhaps too dowdily attired and coiffed to really attract a major singing star), Garner and Cannavale, and the sublime Plummer, who gets some of the movie’s best lines, and who is drily memorable throughout. It’s a movie that is very easy to watch as a result, as the cast go about their business with the surety of veteran performers, but it’s Fogelman who’s the real star here, effortlessly poking a stick at the ridiculous nature of celebrity, and imbuing the movie with a heart and a warmth that reaches out to the viewer and envelops them in its heartfelt embrace. Thankfully, this is one screenplay – based on the true story involving folk singer Steve Tilston – that he’s judged exceptionally well, and the confidence he and the cast have in the material is evident in the finished product (Fogelman has had a somewhat schizophrenic career as a screenwriter: for every Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011), there’s been a Fred Claus (2007) to balance things out).

Shot with a preference for bright, sharply delineated colours by Steve Yedlin, and with a score by Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro that is overwhelmed by the inclusion of several of John Lennon’s solo works (some of which feel more intrusive than complementary), Danny Collins is a romantic comedy drama that is a great deal of fun, and well worth your time, even though it’s sadly apparent that Pacino, great actor though he is, is no great shakes as a singer.

Rating: 8/10 – surprisingly good and with the kind of warm-hearted approach that puts a smile on the viewer’s face throughout, Danny Collins is bolstered by a great performance from Pacino, and a very astute script from Fogelman; with as many visual gags as verbal ones (though none can beat Plummer’s offloading of a Steinway piano), it’s a movie that is continually entertaining, and definitely one to watch with a group of likeminded friends.