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.
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.
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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3qvosHHcWc&spfreload=10, 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."
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.