Until 2010, Steve Tilston was a name whose fame extended only to the admittedly limited fanbase of British Isles folk/rock. At various times in his career, the guitarist/singer/songwriter had run a folk club with Bert Jansch, been in John Renbourn’s band Ship of Fools, made a record with Peter Bellamy, toured with the likes of Maggie Boyle, Pete Zorn and Maartin Allcock, had a couple of his songs recorded by Fairport Convention. His credentials were more than solid within his field, but he wasn’t the sort of musician who packs big arenas.
Then, in 2005, his fortunes changed in a subtle-but-historically-important way: Tilston got a phone call from a memorabilia collector wanting to verify the authenticity of a letter that John Lennon had hand-written to Tilston in 1971, encouraging him to pursue his career without being held back by the fear of fame. Lennon had even given him his personal phone number. But until that moment, Tilston had never known that the letter – mailed to and appropriated by the editor of a magazine wherein Lennon had read an interview with Tilston – even existed.
The story of Tilston’s big if-only moment became public knowledge in 2010, and screenwriters were quick to pounce on its dramatic potential. Dan Fogelman, who penned the screenplays for Crazy, Stupid, Love, Tangled and Cars, ended up taking on the project as his directorial debut. But Fogelman’s spin on the story – originally titled Imagine, and now in a theater near you as Danny Collins – casts Al Pacino in the title role.
This reimagined protagonist is no English folkie who never quite got famous, but an aging American pop/rock star more in the aesthetic mold of Neil Diamond or Billy Joel. He has all the trappings of fame, including hot cars, cocaine up the wazoo, a very young trophy girlfriend and a Hollywood manse decorated with expensive bad taste. But he has sold out artistically and he knows it, not having written a new song in 30 years. The discovery of his John Lennon letter is just the movie’s MacGuffin, Danny’s wakeup call to make changes in his life. But it does provide a nice excuse to lace the soundtrack with Lennon songs to fit the tonal moment.
Narrativewise, Danny Collins is a fairly conventional, predictable redemption story. It even has the compulsory backsliding crisis at the end of Act Two. But the presence of Pacino in the lead, backed by a crackerjack supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner and ace-in-the-hole Christopher Plummer, transforms what might have been a forgettable comedy into a heartfelt exploration of timeless themes like art, love, fame and fortune, family ties, commitment and the power of persistent kindness.
With a long recent string of clunker movies under his belt, it has been easy to lose sight of what a fine repertoire of acting craft Al Pacino has at his command. A lot of it is physical, and a larger-than-life character with stagey gestures like Danny Collins makes terrific use of those skills. The actor spends the next few minutes after first reading the Lennon letter just opening and closing his mouth wordlessly, like a fish, and it tells us everything that we need to know about what’s going through his head.
Trained by his whirlwind life of public appearances to turn on the charm wherever he goes, Danny strikes us at first as a burned-out showbiz phony. But when that letter inspires him to abandon his latest concert tour to track down Tom Donnelly (Cannavale), the illegitimate son whom he has never met, and try to make amends, Pacino believably leads us through a subtle shift from practiced gladhanding to a genuine, if naïve, campaign to spread joy using the only reliable tools at his command: a fat bank account and a gift for blarney. The first thing that he does when he checks into a nondescript Hilton nearby Tom’s house is to try to engineer a romance between two young hotel employees. Needless to say, not all his efforts to win hearts offstage will succeed.
The second thing that Danny does is to strike up a determined flirtation with the hotel’s flinty manager, Mary Sinclair (Bening), who isn’t having any of his pickup lines but is intrigued against her better judgment by his humor – and his patience. The camera repeatedly zeroes in on her slightly crepey neck to hammer home the point, well before Danny makes it out loud to his long-suffering manager, Frank Grubman (Plummer), that Mary is a much more age-appropriate match for him than any woman he has dated (or married) in ages. Expect rocky stuff ahead for these two, but two they are clearly destined to be.
Bening makes a great foil for Pacino, ramrod-straight and no-nonsense in her carriage but susceptible to Diane Keatonesque giggles whenever Danny scores a tiny chink in nastily divorced Mary’s man-armor. And Cannavale is terrific as the decent, hardworking son who wants no part of the guy who impregnated his groupie mother, but has serious needs that only money like Danny’s can alleviate. But it’s Plummer who steals the screen from Pacino with a skeptical sideways glance anytime that he’s on it, and those scenes are altogether too few.
Danny Collins can be faulted for lack of originality, relying on worn-out plot gimmicks like a mortal illness pulling a dysfunctional family back together. But it has well-written dialogue; is persuasively funny (like its protagonist) more often than not; and the superb performances elevate it into something that, without tying up all the conflicts into a neat little bow at the end, will likely make audiences a teeny bit teary at moments and walk out of the cinema feeling good. Can’t ask for much more than that – except perhaps for a liberal helping of John Lennon in the score. Check.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.