I went to see ‘Danny Collins’ with modest expectations. The aging and worn out singer trying to make a comeback, or alternately trying to flip the script and stop being a caricature of his previous pop star self has been done before. This movie will remind various avid movie goers of Jeff Bridges ‘Crazy Heart’ movie in which he plays an aging country musician, still looking for redemption (see also Hugh Grant’s ‘Music and Lyrics’). And let’s be clear, when I say redemption, I mean self-redemption, as in finally doing something good with one’s own life. I’m not talking about a conversion experience. The real question with such movies is does the movie itself have any redeeming features.
As it happens, this movie does have quite a few redeeming features which makes it well worth the hour and 40 some minutes it takes to see it. In the first place it has a stellar cast who are all very much on form— including Al Pacino playing Danny Collins (but looking like an emaciated Leonard Cohen, and sounding rather like that raspy singer as well), Annette Benning playing the Hilton hotel manager Mary Sinclair at the hotel where Collins holes up in New Jersey to try and both connect with his long lost son and write new songs, Jennifer Garner very effectively playing the wife of that son, Christopher Plummer knocking it out of the park as Collin’s manager, but the real surprise star of the film is a little girl called Hope (her really name is Giselle Eisenberg) who is a scene stealer and heartbreaker if there ever was one. Go see the film just to see the initial scene in which Hope appears! This Hope does indeed spring eternal, or eternally springs as she is hyperactive and ADHD.
There are several other things beyond good acting that make this movie well worth seeing. For one thing it has a John Lennon soundtrack, and for good reason. The essential premise of the movie is that Danny Collins once was sent a personal letter from John Lennon telling him to be true to himself and his songwriting, and in essence not to sell out. This actually is based on a true story involving a British folk singer. But alas, the letter never reaches its intended audience, being instead kept by a music magazine reporter who later sells it as memorabilia.
And so Danny Collins instead of knowing about or heeding such advice, does indeed sell out, sings pop songs written by others, and becomes a caricature of himself, which, while it pays the bills, is soul killing as well. So the movie begins with the manager giving Collins a framed copy of the original letter from Lennon which completely blows Danny Collins mind, and reminds him that he did not choose the path Lennon suggested. As Joni Mitchell once so aptly put it ‘he got stuck in the star maker machinery behind the popular song’.
So what does self-redemption look like to a person who realizes he has become something he loathes rather than loves? It looks like finding one’s lost family, and finding the courage to write some of one’s own heartfelt songs. I was grateful that the film didn’t go for the cheap thrills of having Benning and Pacino hook up. Their relationship was better for avoiding that pitfall. There is some pathos in this film if one really thinks about it. Suppose you started out as the next Bob Dylan and woke up one morning to discover you spent of rest of your life as Barry Manilow? Yikes! Talk about a cautionary tale.
In the vast cinematic wasteland of current offerings in the theater, this movie stands out as not only better than average but better than most.