Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Danny Collins

             Imagine There's No Personal History … It’s Kinda Hard to Do

                    Review by Ken Burke

 With a combination of my wonderful wife, Nina, fighting off a temporary illness (no matter what you hear about “use by” dates not necessarily being absolute, I encourage you to seriously consider not eating nonfat Greek yogurt when the expiration date has passed a month ago), Easter dinner and visit with the excellent-in-laws, and the long-awaited-start of baseball season (my beloved Oakland A’s finally managed to overcome a 10-year-drought—oops, bad word in California right now—by winning on Opening Night), I’ve only gotten to one new movie since my last posting.  (Although Nina and I are finally catching up on HBO’s True Detective miniseries a bit over a year late.  What marvelous acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey!  I can see why they were both nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series for the 2014 Primetime Emmy Awards—although apparently no one had a chance to beat Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, another one which I haven’t seen and most likely won’t given how much time I’d have to devote to 62 episodes, considering I’m not much of a binge watcher, except for gorging on as many as possible at one time a couple of years ago for the 4th season of Arrested Development.  So, now that you know a bit more about my TV tastes, let’s get back to the more-important-cinematic-matters.)  That one movie I have recently seen is the new Al Pacino offering, Danny Collins, casting him in the unexpected role of an aging pop-music-star finally ready to make some changes in his life (what Pacino's Michael Corleone promised his wife, Kay [Diane Keaton] he’d do in The Godfather Part II [Francis Ford Coppola, 1974] but didn’t get around to until many years later when his life as a Mafia Don finally wore him down in The Godfather Part III [Coppola, 1990] so he turned "the family" over to nephew Vincent Mancini [Andy Garcia], but Danny Collins is ready for much faster results).
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                          Danny Collins (Dan Fogelman)
A very popular but inwardly-unfilled pop singer suddenly discovers that John Lennon wrote him a letter of encouragement 40 years ago to stay true to himself, avoiding the pitfalls of fame, so he cancels his tour, attempts to get back to writing new, better material, and also tries to make amends with the son and his family who was never in Danny's life at all.

What Happens: We begin on June 30, 1971 as rising-star-folksinger-songwriter Danny Collins is being interviewed at Chime music magazine (seemed to me to be a fictionalized version of Rolling Stone), where he expresses concerns that he won’t be able to handle the immense fame and fortune he seems destined for.  Cut to a July 12, 2014 massive concert where Danny’s a long-time-megastar with adoring (but past their groupie-prime, as with me) fans, although his signature song, “Hey, Baby Doll,” sounds a long way away from the kind of early-Collins-folk-oriented-tunes that Oscar Isaac’s character was trying to make famous in Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013; review in our December 27, 2013 posting).  As he tells long-time-manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) after the show, Danny’s clearly not that satisfied with his treadmill life of recycling the past (he admits he hasn’t written a new song in 30 years, despite just releasing a Greatest Hits Volume 3 disc, so he’s clearly leaning on his old stuff and turning to other writers for his material), although he’s still great at filling arenas, living a lavish lifestyle, constantly self-medicating with booze and coke (not “the real thing” version… maybe, depending on which kind helps you “sing in perfect harmony”), and preparing for his next serial-marriage to attractive-bimbo-Sophie (Katarina Cas), a good 30 years younger.  As he expresses his First-World problems about shallow accomplishments to Frank (I doubt anyone photographed by Sebastião Salgado in his The Salt of the Earth documentary [Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, 2014; review in our April 2, 2015 posting] would consider Danny’s life all that traumatic, although we get a nice ironic soundtrack comment on this with the use of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” [from his 1970 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album]—I’m not going to cut away to a link, as I often do, with every Lennon song reference, though, because there are just too many of them here), his old friend offers a surprise birthday present, a framed letter from Lennon to Danny sent in response to that long-ago-interview encouraging him to “stay true to your music, stay true to yourself,” even when deluged with “money for nothing, chicks for free” (that’s from Dire Straits' song “Money for Nothing” [on their 1985 Brothers in Arms album], not the Lennon letter; if you’d like a diversionary listen to that tune, go here), advice from one who knew of what he spoke that Danny could have used 40 years ago but never got the chance because the interviewer (also the publisher?) at Chime sold the letter to a collector, then it made the rounds until Frank quietly retrieved it months ago.

 This long-delayed-inspiration from Lennon—along with Danny’s discovery that Sophie’s claim of keeping active doing busywork while he’s on the road means having sex with their gardener (Brian Smith), leading Danny to refer to this guy as “Busywork” rather than his name, Judd—causes our “instant karma”-smacked-singer to cancel the rest of his tour in order to start writing personal songs again, with little concern about the now-cancelled-nuptials, given that Sophie was going to have to sign a pre-nup-agreement anyway.  Suddenly, Danny’s taken up residence at the Woodcliff Lake, NJ Hilton, has a piano brought in to his not-that-large-of-a-room, starts flirting with the slightly-more-age-appropriate-manager, Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening)—who’s not really his fan (partly because her ex-husband was) but finds him charming, yet thinks better of his constant dinner invitations even when they both loosen up with several drinks at the hotel bar one night—and makes plans to finally meet his adult son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), working dutifully (at best) in construction, living nearby with wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and adorable little girl, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).  Tom was the result of a truly-age-appropriate-groupie-tryst many years earlier, with the woman refusing any help or further contact with Danny—nor marriage to anyone else—leaving Tom very angry toward his biological father, especially in that he lost his mother to cancer some time ago, much to Danny’s surprise.  The situation thaws, though, when Danny arranges for the Donnellys to enroll Hope in an expensive special Manhattan school to help with her ADHD problems, allowing Tom to admit to his father that he’s been seeing a NYC specialist about his possibly-fatal-leukemia-situation, which he hasn’t even admitted to Samantha yet.  All seems to be solidly moving toward reconciliation (Danny’s even making a firm connection with Mary, having finished a new, pleasant song that she likes) until Danny books a gig at an upscale Manhattan bar to showcase his revamped image but his nervousness forces him to fall victim to the audience’s chants for “Hey, Baby Doll” and other past hits, leading to an after-performance-meltdown where coke (not the kind in a bottle, just to be clear) and recriminations lead to broken connections with Tom and Mary.

 Still, Danny manages to patch things up a bit by agreeing to resume his tour (Frank makes it clear that Danny’s extravagant lifestyle is beginning to take a toll on their corporate finances, especially with Hope’s schooling to pay for; Frank also softens up Tom for the second time by telling him the story of how Danny forced Frank into rehab decades ago when the manager was in even worse shape than his star performer).  But then, just as we think the movie’s going to ambiguously wrap up, leaving us to ponder if things will get back on track for Danny and Mary, along with Tom and Samantha, we get extended reassurances of such (Danny encourages Mary to come see him when the tour comes back to her area, then he leaves the precious Lennon letter with her; Frank explains to Tom how Danny’s really a great guy in spite of his mistakes; Danny joins Tom when he gets his doctor’s diagnosis after the leukemia treatments, with assurances that the cancer’s now under control), so it all ends on a constructed happy note, despite the earlier mounting traumas.

So What? While a lot about Danny Collins works quite well for me (or at least well enough in its more-obvious-plot-predictability-parts), I’ll never understand how his signature song, “Hey, Baby Doll,” ever got airplay let alone becoming such a huge hit (in my experience of this movie, Collins seems a takeoff on a Neil Diamond-type-character with “Hey, Baby Doll” as sort of a cheap, crappy version of “Sweet Caroline” so maybe it’s only intended to help audiences quickly draw such conclusions for an instant gestalt on this character rather than being plausible as a hit tune, even one from back in the 1970s).  Speaking as someone who never knew his birth parents, I could relate to Tom’s anger at his missing father.  (My adoptive parents once tried to arrange a meeting for me with my real mother but she just couldn’t do as it would have revealed a hidden part of her past to her current family; rationally, I understood her decision, emotionally I’ve never quite gotten over it—not her initial decision which I fully support but the much-later-refusal, which felt like closing “a window in [my] heart,” to steal a line from Paul Simon’s “Graceland” [on the 1986 Graceland album, which I will break flow here to offer to you at—a nice duet version with Willy Nelson but if you’d prefer the original with some of his African collaborators here it is at—because it could easily serve as another of my Musical Metaphors overall for Danny Collins and because it has a special connection for me and Nina, in celebration of her now feeling better than she did a few days ago, something I’m more interested in than journalistic coherence in these reviews.)  Certainly—if nothing else—one endearing pleasure of Danny Collins is the abundant use of John Lennon songs in the soundtrack (purely as commentary on narrative events, not as foregrounded elements of the characters’ lives), including (in the order in which they appear in the movie) “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” (from the 1974 Walls and Bridges album), “Imagine” (from the 1971 album of the same name), “Nobody Told Me” (from the 1984 Milk and Honey album, released a bit over 3 years after John’s death), “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” (from the 1980 Double Fantasy album, released just shortly before he was killed), and “Love” (from the 1970 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album), all of which work well to enhance the narrative themes on screen and give substance to how this whole movie was inspired by a true story which I’ll explain more about in the following paragraph.

Bottom Line Final Comments: The opening intertitle admits that Danny Collins is “kind of based on a true story just a little bit,” which is accurate because it takes its inspiration from the actual event of John Lennon reading an interview in a 1971 issue of ZigZag magazine (seems to me like an actual British version of Rolling Stone) with quickly-emerging English folk singer Steve Tilston, then sending him a short letter (you can see a photo of it here) with encouragement to not let the rush of success overwhelm him, even offering to converse with Tilston (just as he did meet with a Spanish schoolteacher-fan in 1966, as depicted in a less-fictionalized-manner in Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed [David Truba, 2013; review in our March 26, 2015 posting]) but that was never to be because someone at ZigZag grabbed the letter and sold it to a collector; when it finally reached another owner in 2005 Tilston was contacted for authenticity verification, totally surprising him that this note ever existed (more details on the event at this site and this one; also check the 3rd link in the material about the movie far below to see Tilston in performance).  From that beginning, the much-extended-version of this story became Danny Collins, using the Lennon connection as a springboard to tell a completely-made-up-tale of a major celebrity’s hollowness and redemption, which hits a lot of appropriately-sentimental-story-beats (the adorable granddaughter, the son suddenly putting years of bitterness behind him when Dad pays for her special schooling, the son possibly dying of blood-cell-cancer even though he hasn’t yet told his wife that he’s ill, the story about how Danny got Frank into rehab, the desperately-needed-good-news diagnosis for Tom just at final fade-out) but needs the acting power of Pacino and his talented supporting cast to pull it off without the sentimentality turning into a sobfest.

 At least the story veers away from what’s being set up as a simplistic-fairy-tale-moment-of-redemptive-triumph when Danny plays at the upscale Manhattan bar but succumbs to audience demand for the same old playlist rather than having the courage to confound them with new material, but what was seemingly headed for a more ambiguous ending that would leave it up to us and the characters off-screen as to whether everything would reconcile or not then gets happily-stabilized again when Danny gives away his Mercedes to the hotel bellhop, Nicky Ernst (Josh Peck), assures Mary that the new material will emerge in the revived tour (so we’re sure that she’ll reconnect with him when the bus tour rolls back into the area in a couple of months), and surprisingly shows up in the doctor’s office with his son to give him the meticulously-explained “Hi, Tom” good-news-pep-talk about his diagnosis.  It’s all a bit overly-sappy at times (plus stretching credibility a bit with Al Pacino as a successful pop singer—unconvincingly portrayed as such in the opening 2014 concert scene), but with the combination of Pacino charisma, a true sense of engaged patter between Al and Annette’s characters, and the magnetic charm of little Giselle, Danny Collins offers plenty of delights, reassurances that empty or bitter lives can be turned around, and that decency lurks in the souls of even the most cynical celebrities, even if a guy like Danny keeps his heart “up his ass” too often, as Frank explains to Tom in yet another of the buttload of final scenes (and some people complained that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Peter Jackson, 2003] had too many endings—even though they’re all in the book; compared to Danny Collins that earlier example was a model of a smooth finale).

 As for my usual Musical Metaphor to cap off the review, given the context here I don’t think there could any other choice than Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” (from his 1975 Shaved Fish album, among others) at, the official music video version but a quick search of YouTube will turn up several other options if you prefer.  Clearly, Danny Collins has been living a life of increasingly-negative-results (including his 3 previously-failed marriages) because of his fast-fame/substance-abuse/ultra-materialist-lifestyle but as presented in this movie he’s now enjoying a heaping-helping of good karma ever since he resolved to make changes for the better, so while it may not have been exactly “instant” it’s still a marvelous turn-around for a 2-month-investment (as we’re told angrily by Frank, not happy to travel to New Jersey) in identity-retooling, set to carry him through an extended lifetime of tour dates to support the new commitments to his long-lost-family.  But with someone as cute as Hope in that family circle, Danny’s karma should be satisfying, as he, Frank, and the Donnellys “all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun,” celebrating the road now taken beyond "Hey, Baby Doll."
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Here’s some more information about Danny Collins:!danny-collins/cfvg (“The Road When I Was Young,” a song sung by Steve Tilston—recorded in 2012 at a concert at BBC 4—the actual intended recipient of the John Lennon letter written in 1971 but not made known to him until 34 years later, the inspiration for Danny Collins; you can just put Steve’s name into a YouTube search to find lots of videos of him singing his compositions, but I chose this one because he’s singing about his life years ago when that Lennon letter would have been most relevant to him)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Glad you caught up with HBO's True Detective. Apparently it will have a second season with new actors. HBO's production quality is often top notch as demonstrated in their many award winning efforts including Game of Thrones which I was sure I would not like until I watched a few episodes (and particularly the first season). I also liked FX's version of Fargo with the Cohen Brothers ensuring quality in a prequel.

    Given the star power in Danny Collins this should have been a bigger film. Dan Fogelman's writing and directing seems to the main problem while Pacino as a mega rock star was totally unconvincing. Since they made up the story after the Lennon letter, why not go with something like a John Sebastian folk singer homage? More aligned with the real story and from all accounts Sebastian was a first class jerk in real life. Annette Bening and Jennifer Garner's talents were effectively wasted (although Garner's pregnancy was convincing and undoubtedly real). As for Dire Straits, they were a superior act, definitely on my top five list even after discounting their overplayed MTV era "Money for Nothing" pop song.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for the input. Nina and I are still enjoying True Detective with 3 episodes to go from that first season. She's also a big fan of Game of Thrones, but for me it's just another well-praised series (like Fargo) that I just don't seem to have the time to watch. Maybe if I'd stop putting so much of my week into this damn blog ... although I anticipate no changes anytime soon.

    As for Danny Collins, I agree that more of a folkie-type role for Pacino would have been more plausible for him as a musician; I guess the filmmakers needed a plot with a guy who could stay on the road for years selling out arenas so they created this type of character, but Pacino just didn't make him plausible for me. Regarding Dire Straits, my favorite of their tunes is "Sultans of Swing," which I could listen to over and over again. Nina and I saw Knopfler opening for Dylan in Berkeley a couple of years ago, but Mark was into blues that night and Bob was singing everything in the same tempo so that it was really difficult to tell one song from another much of the time--not at all the concert I'd hoped for from either one of them.


    1. The second season's True Detective trailer appears to have potential.

  3. Hi rj, I agree, it looks great and with another excellent cast. It sort of gives me a sense of what a non-network version of Gotham might be like. Ken

  4. I saw this last night and it was good!! I'm a massive Pacino fan though. A few cringe-worthy moments, but mostly Pacino being Pacino. ;)

  5. Hi Thomas, Thanks for the comment; I too am a big Pacino fan (just rewatched The Godfather trilogy last week; great to see Al and the whole "gang" again). Ken

  6. I have actually seen this movie twice. I thought that it was pretty good. But, he did play a jerk in parts of the movie.

  7. Hi Shelby, Thanks for the comment; much appreciated. Ken