In 2005, a British musician named Steve Tilston learned that John Lennon had written him an encouraging letter. The catch: Tilston never received the letter, which was written in 1971 and sent to a rock magazine, where it apparently languished until it wound up in the hands of a collector.
The story instantly raised questions about how Tilston’s life might have unfolded had he been able to read that letter when it was sent.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
That mind-blowing incident inspired director Dan Fogelman’s Danny Collins, the fictionalized story of a sell-out American musician (Al Pacino) who — like his real-life counterpart — learns too late that he once received a letter from Lennon urging him to pursue his own vision.
Never having seen the letter, Danny followed a commercial path. When we meet Danny, he has become a kind of show-business joke, a singer whose work appeals to aging boomers who implore him to repeat what amounts to a series of insipid hits, most notably a song entitled “Hey, Baby Doll.”
When Danny’s manager (Christopher Plummer) finds the letter and presents it to Danny as a birthday present, the singer’s world is —you’ll pardon the expression — rocked.
Danny suddenly realizes what he’s known all along: He’s wasted his life on trivial rock and wanton sex, much of it to the accompaniment of drugs and alcohol.
From an artistic point of view, Danny committed the worst of all sins: He betrayed his own talent.
Deep into his 60s, Danny decides that it’s time for a change.
He drops a pre-arranged tour, junks his philandering young girlfriend, leaves his plush Los Angeles home and heads to New Jersey, where he checks into a Hilton hotel. He insists on having a baby grand piano delivered to his room so he can write the music he should have been creating all along.
Why New Jersey? Danny has a grown son (Bobby Cannavale) in New Jersey. He’s never seen the young man, but Danny thinks it’s time to set his personal life straight. To do this, Danny must overcome the justifiable resentments of a son he essentially abandoned.
Cannavale’s Tom works construction. His wife (Jennifer Garner) is expecting the couple’s second child. The first child, a daughter, suffers from ADHD, and touches Danny’s heart. He wants to be a grandpa.
Danny’s commitment to sobriety wavers with the ups and downs of his developing relationship with his son. He also tries to seduce the hotel’s manager (Annette Bening), a prim woman who’s smart enough not to fall for Danny’s banter — at least not at first.
Neither drippy enough to slop over into sentiment nor observant enough to be entirely convincing, Danny Collins hardly qualifies as the kind of movie in which you’d like to see Pacino.
Pacino makes it clear that Danny isn’t the least bit deluded about the kind of figure he cuts. He’s tired of being preposterous, but he’s also addicted to the material success that a one-note career has given him.
Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid Love) doesn’t always make obvious choices, although much of what transpires in Danny Collins feels contrived.
Watching Pacino has its rewards, but this story of a man seeking redemption in his golden years fails to provide either him or us with sufficient challenge.