Al Pacino has endured a bad time on the big screen during the past fifteen years, but there are signs of a late-career recovery: last year he appeared in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, earning some praise even though reviews for the film were mixed, and in this family drama by first-time director Dan Fogelman the Pacino of old ‘hoo-hah’s his way through scenes like it’s 1992. His aging rock star Danny Collins is 50% Neil Diamond, 35% Bob Dylan and 15% Johnny Cash, though the story is actually based on the real-life experiences of English singer-songwriter Steve Tilston, who appears briefly during the end credits. When we first meet Danny he’s a nervous young folkie in the 1960s, stumbling his way through an interview with a journalist in which he discusses his admiration for John Lennon. Fast forward 50 years or so and Collins has enjoyed a successful career. He’s promoting a third volume of greatest hits and he’s still very popular on the nostalgia circuit, playing sold out shows to big crowds of pensioners who just want to hear his old hit single Hey Baby Doll over and over, although understandably he doesn’t find this particularly fulfilling. Meanwhile at home in his LA mansion his young girlfriend Sophie (Katarina Čas), when not organising unwelcome surprise parties, is cheating on him. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Danny, who lost his artistic mojo decades ago, is unhappy.
A MacGuffin arrives in the form of an old letter from John Lennon, written in response to the young Danny’s self-questioning interview, in which he wonders whether future success will corrupt his artistry. However rather than send the letter directly to Collins it transpires that Lennon posted it to the journalist, who subsequently kept it in the hope it would become valuable. (This actually happened to Tilston, who received his own long-lost letter from the Beatle in 2005, 35 years after it was written.) When this missive finally lands in Danny’s lap decades later it forces him to question his own loss of artistic integrity as well as his estrangement from only son Tom (Bobby Cannavale). Collins moves to a hotel in New Jersey in order to extend an olive branch to Tom and his family (Jennifer Garner and Giselle Eisenberg) and he also rediscovers his talent for songwriting, inspired by Annette Bening’s down-to-earth hotel manager as much as Lennon’s words.
You’ll have to look beyond the convenient timing – this all happens just as Tom is told by doctors that he may have terminal leukemia – and the ease with which Collins is accepted and eventually beloved by everyone he meets (even those who aren’t starstruck). If you can do that then Danny Collins is enjoyably breezy, with Bening stealing every one of her scenes, which is no mean feat considering she’s playing opposite Al Pacino as a fast-talking, charismatic rock star. Garner and Cannavale offer dependable support and there’s a nice comic turn by Christopher Plummer as the star’s tired, long-suffering manager too.
The story begins to move in a direction that suggests Collins will enjoy a career rennaissance similar to that of Cash circa American Recordings, but in the end he only manages to crank out one song; Fogelman – also the writer – decides to focus more on the interpersonal relationships than the music and the music business. The most striking original number (Don’t Look Down) was written by Don Was and Ryan Adams, but there’s a rather predictable reliance on Lennon’s solo music elsewhere, with much of it way too on the nose. Two examples: Beautiful Boy duly appears when Danny first attempts to reconcile with his son Tom, while Working Class Hero soundtracks Danny arriving home to his massive mansion in his flash car.
Credit to Fogelman for making a sentimental ending work better than it ought to, and for giving Pacino a decent role that makes good use of his overacting; fans will probably find much to like and there are signs here that the actor’s own career slide – in terms of cinema, anyway – is finally over. Perhaps he received a long-lost letter from Marlon Brando.
Directed by: Dan Fogelman.
Written by: Dan Fogelman.
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer.
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin.
Editing: Julie Monroe.
Music: Theodore Shaprio, Don Was, Ryan Adams, John Lennon.
Running Time: 103 minutes.