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Film Reviews Danny Collins: A rock star’s battle with time and fall from the limelight

Al Pacino stars as Danny Collins in Dan Fogelman’s drama about an aging rock star who can’t stop wanting to be adored.

Hopper Stone/Bleecker Street

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Dan Fogelman
Directed by
Dan Fogelman
Starring
Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummer and Bobby Cannavale
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

Al Pacino, once an heir to the Marlon Brando method crown, has become increasingly emphatic with the passing decades, his volume rising along with his hairdo, refusing to be ignored. With Danny Collins, the 74-year-old actor gives us the full Pacino: It's one of those Quaker Oats box-like regressive experiences: a celebrity playing a celebrity, who's sort of modelled on himself.

The movie, about an aging rock star trying to recover his artistic mojo, is the directorial debut of Dan Fogelman, best known as a prolific writer of corny, successful movies (Cars 2, The Guilt Trip, Tangled, Last Vegas, Crazy, Stupid, Love). The plot of Danny Collins, though loosely based on a real incident, follows the pattern, though it occasionally sucker punches you with an emotionally authentic moment.

In 2005, English folksinger, Steve Tilston, finally received a letter which had been written to him 34 years before by John Lennon. Lennon was responding to a magazine interview in which the young Tilston speculated that success probably would spoil his art; Lennon disagreed, telling him his integrity was up to him to maintain.

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Fogelman's script serves as an alternative history, in which a one-time sensitive singer-songwriter (we see a young Pacino lookalike in an interview back in 1971) achieves his dreams and sells out. Not to make too fine a point of it, we see the words "Sold Out" on a marquee of a theatre where the aging Danny Collins is in his dressing room getting ready to perform. Squished into a girdle, sporting dyed black hair and an orange booth tan, he wears a big cross around his neck; the cross which is also where he stashes his cocaine. Onstage, Danny Collins is like a lower-carat Neil Diamond, sashaying about and croaking out his golden oldies to an adoring gray-haired audience.

The singer's life-changing moment comes when Danny's crusty old manager, Frank (Christopher Plummer), gives him a birthday present: a long-lost letter from Lennon telling Danny to "stay true to yourself." The singer takes it as a late-life wake-up call. He says goodbye to his latest gold-digging, young fiancée, hops on his private jet to New Jersey and assumes his version of the humble life: He rents a suite at the Hilton, where he installs a baby grand piano to become reacquainted with his muse. He also plays matchmaker between the bellboy and the concierge and flirts with the sensible, middle-aged hotel manager, Mary (Annette Bening) who calls him "ridiculous," but screws up her eyes and giggles girlishly at everything he says.

Danny's real reason for moving to New Jersey is to reconnect with his estranged son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), a 40-year-old construction worker who has a hyperactive five-year-old daughter with special needs, a very pregnant wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and a looming personal crisis.

Between Danny's attempts to ingratiate himself with his new family and the hotel staff, the movie bobbles between sitcom cuteness and melodrama, with Fogelman throwing bits of off-beat dialogue and plot turns to avoid complete predictability. Put aside the overall mawkishness, and there are some fine, quiet exchanges between Pacino, as a guy who can't stop wanting to be adored, and Cannavale, a stubborn grown-up child.

One of the things that partly excuses the movie's mush is that it's a kind of musical. The songs include Danny's chestnut, Hey Baby Doll (written by Ciaran Gribbin), which echoes Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline. Danny's would-be comeback song is an introspective Leonard Cohen-like ballad called Don't Look Down (by Don Was and Ryan Adams), and nine of the songs on the soundtrack, linked to dramatic moments, are from Lennon's post-Beatles career. Those include Imagine, which was the movie's original title, and wrap up fittingly with Instant Karma!, a song by a rock star who decided to get serious about his life's decisions.

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