Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
But when he came to himself…
Do not let the world squeeze you into its own mold…
It seems that every other film today begins with a variation of “Based on a true story,” so the audience of older adults laughed out loud when writer-director Dan Fogelman began his film with, “The following is kind of based on a true story a little bit.”
In 1971 a young singer whose song “Hey, Baby Doll” has topped the charts is sitting in the office of a music magazine reporter. The guy tells him he is going to be huge, and the young Al Pacino look alike is speechless. Jump ahead to the 21st century and the now gray-streaked singer is still singing the song that made him famous, along with works by other tunesmiths. He will confess later that he has not written a song since his debut. Danny has followed the too well trodden road of other stars who began their careers when they were too immature to know what was good for them. He snorts cocaine, has drunk an ocean full of booze, and slept with about every nubile hanger-on willing to go to bed with him. His current fiancé could be his granddaughter—and, he discovers, is also bedding down a more age-appropriate guy. (This leads to one of the funnier and most amiable break-ups to be found in a movie.)
Danny’s world changes on his birthday when his manager and best friend Frank (Christopher Plummer) presents him with a truly one-of-a-kind present. Inside the box is a framed letter—from John Lennon. It was sent to him care of that reporter 40 years ago, and the reporter kept it. Lennon had read the interview and heard Danny’s song, and so was moved to write him. The advice was ordinary—stay true to yourself—but at the end was the invitation to call him to talk, along with his private telephone number. Danny is overwhelmed, and soon voices what I was thinking—what if he had received the letter and been able to be in contact with the great icon? How different a career he might have had! Instead of leading sing-alongs with graying fans and relying on music written by others, where would he now in his development as an artist?
Still almost in shock, Danny impetuously tells Frank to cancel the rest of his tour and to order up his private jet plane so he can fly to New Jersey. To Frank’s disgust, the manager sharing the disdain of most Manhattanites for that state, Danny flies in, buys a very expensive car, and drives to a small town where he checks in at a Hilton. He immediately befriends the young valet and the lovely check in clerk, setting in motion a series of acts that will pair them up. Both of them recognize Danny, as does the manager Mary (Annette Bening). He invites her to dinner, but she is not interested. Soon we learn the reason for Danny’s trip to this small town. He knocks on the door of a house and meets little Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), followed by her mother Samantha (Jennifer Garner). The latter’s recognition is more than having seen him on TV and listening to his music. She is married to the son he conceived during one drunken night spent with a groupie, but has never seen. When summoned home by her call, Tom (Bobby Cannavale) is anything but happy to see him.
There follows a long campaign by Danny to win over his son. The latter is not impressed, not even when Danny arrives in front of their house in his private touring bus with his face and name prominently displayed on its sides. It is granddaughter Hope, afflicted with ADHD, who will be the key to his redemption. Mary, whom Danny continually extends a dinner invitation, will also play an important role. In his hotel room he has installed a Steinway grand piano, on which he works out the first new song that has come to him in 40 years. She pays him several visits, and when he shares his song with her, offers some cogent advice.
Frank is worried that the fans will not accept a new Danny Collins, so they decide to try out his new song at a small venue. Mary and her two young staff members are among the crowd, most of whom, judging by their hair and skin, are on Social Security. Danny comes on, and—
There is a lot to like in this remake of the familiar tale of a washed-up or aging star seeking a comeback. The unexpected turn of events at the club; the slow development of romance that does not involve the characters passionately stripping for sex at their first or second meeting; and above all, the fine ensemble cast—Pacino as the flawed but likeable rock star prodigal who “comes to himself” via the letter; Christopher Plummer as Danny’s long suffering agent and friend; Annette Bening as the woman refusing to be swept off her feet by a famous star; Jennifer Garner as the supportive wife who wants to like her father-in-law, but understands why Tom hates him; and above all, Bobby Cannavale, the construction worker who reminds me of Chazz Palminterri in his rugged blue collar looks. In addition to the cast, the sound track is very appealing, including such John Lennon songs as “Beautiful Boy.”
Frank proves to be Danny’s good friend—I love the way he keeps his self-centered client grounded when Danny complains about some minor problem, “Pregnant women in Africa feeding half their village with their titties have problems.” This film of redemption could launch a discussion in a number of directions—about lost opportunities and redemption itself, or about rock stars who use their fame for good causes versus those who give in to the hedonistic temptations of the wealth that success brings them. Another line of discussion could flow from Isaiah 55:2a, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” That is, why does Danny settle into a career of doing the same old thing for 40 years, rather than continue to create new works? Be sure to stay through the end to learn about the real letter that John Lennon did send to British folk singer Steve Tilston, who actually received it in 2005.
This review with a set of discussion question will be in the May 2015 issue of Visual Parables.