In 1971, a 21-year-old folk singer named Steve Tilston gave an interview to ZigZag magazine. In the interview, Tilston said that he feared fame and fortune might interfere with his songwriting abilities. The interview was read by John Lennon, who quickly sent a letter to Tilston in reply: “Being rich doesn't change your experience in the way you think,” Lennon said. “The only difference basically is that you don't have to worry about money – food, roof, etc. - but all other experiences – emotions – relationships – are the same as anybody's.” John included his home phone number in the letter, essentially inviting Tilston to call him. Sadly, Tilston didn't learn of the letter's existence for decades. By the time he discovered it in 2005, Lennon had been dead for 25 years.
This true story is the inspiration for Dan Fogelman's directorial debut Danny Collins, which takes the basic “a musician learns that John Lennon once sent him a letter” notion and then makes up the rest. It's less a true story than a fictional story with just a dash of truth in it, but thankfully, there's a fair amount of emotional truth to be found in Fogelman's fiction. Despite some disappointingly conventional storytelling beats, the film succeeds thanks to smart dialogue, a handful of moving moments and a terrific lead performance.
Danny Collins (Al Pacino, The Godfather) is not a folk singer, but a pop star who hasn't written a new song in thirty years. People like his old hits, so he continues to sing those and doesn't bother with anything new (hey, it's worked for Billy Joel). When his longtime manager (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music) gives him the Lennon letter as a gift, it triggers a number of repressed memories and buried desires. Suddenly, he becomes compelled to do two things he's avoided for a very long time: he wants to start writing new music, and to meet his adult son Tom (Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire) for the first time.
Tom is the product of a one-night stand, and he holds an understandable grudge against Danny. After all, Danny knew about Tom's existence, but chose not to do anything with that information. Their first meeting is a tense, unpleasant one, though it does give Danny the opportunity to meet Tom's lovely wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner, Alias) and young daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). Determined not to lose this fleeting chance to reconnect with his only living family member, Danny does everything in his power to demonstrate that he's serious about making things right.
There's a zeal in Pacino's performance that I haven't seen from him in a few years – that rakish grin, that room-filling energy, the way he turns his dialogue into something almost musical – it's a real pleasure to see that version of the actor again. Danny flirts shamelessly with hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening, American Beauty), and demonstrates an almost puppy-ish persistence in his efforts to convince her to go on a date with him. On and off the stage, he's an enthusiastic people-pleaser: he'll always sing the hits, and he'll always serve up just the right compliment. What he keeps hidden away is the fact that he feels increasingly dead on the inside – he's grown tired of life, and uses the usual vices of the rich and famous (drugs, alcohol, sex) to numb the pain. Initially, his new relationships with Mary and Tom seem to fill the void, but old habits die hard. There's a direct parallel drawn between Danny's efforts to form new relationships and his efforts to write new songs – both are worthy goals, but sticking to the old stuff is a whole lot easier.
Danny's redemption arc is a fairly predictable one (complete with a major setback at the end of the film's second act), but all of Danny's key relationships are so well-drawn that it hardly matters. Fogelman serves up a good deal of genuinely witty banter, but never leans on it so hard that the characters stop sounding like real people. Pacino generates strong chemistry with Garner, Plummer, Cannavale and Bening, and watching him make small, nuanced adjustments to his performance depending on who he's sharing the screen with offers another reminder of why he's one of the greats.
Save for the predictability of the plot, the film's other significant problem is its overreliance on the music of John Lennon. I like Lennon's songs as much as the next man, but there are an awful lot of them here and almost all of them are used in the most on-the-nose manner possible (Danny's drug days are highlighted by “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” “Imagine” gets trotted out when he starts considering a better future... you get the idea). The film's bits of original music are employed more effectively, and it helps that Pacino can actually sing: he sounds like Neil Diamond when he's belting out his old tunes (his biggest hit is “Hey, Baby Doll,” a “Sweet Caroline”-esque number penned by Ryan Adams), and like Leonard Cohen when he's tenderly speak-singing his new ones. Granted, he misses a note here and there, but he sounds as good as a lot of popular singers do once they reach Pacino's age. Paul McCartney struggles with certain notes now, too.
There's a lot of stuff to enjoy here, but the real heart of the film is found in the relationship between Danny and Tom. Cannavale is so good as a man torn between holding on to his bitterness and accepting the opportunity to finally have a dad, and the pain in his eyes when he looks at Danny is heartbreaking. Midway through the film, there's a surprising, personal revelation that brings the two men closer together – I won't say what it is, but it's a fresh variation on an overused plot contrivance. The film doesn't quite reach greatness, but its closing scene is one of the best I've seen this year – a tender, vulnerable, perfect moment featuring beautiful work from Cannavale and Pacino. It would have been so easy to close this movie with a “Danny sings and everybody dances!” sequence, but that would have betrayed the film's true nature. Fogelman is a lot like Danny: he's generally an up-tempo people pleaser (his screenwriting work includes Crazy, Stupid, Love, Tangled and, er, Last Vegas), but it's clear that he has the potential to deliver something remarkable if he ever works up the nerve.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2015