‘Danny Collins’: The rocky road toward redemption

Share Button

For Digital First Media

“Danny Collins,” starring Al Pacino as a septuagenarian rock star, is a largely fictional film. However, it was inspired by an actual event.

In 1971, Steve Tilston was an up and coming singer-songwriter and guitarist in the folk genre. Then 21, the Liverpool native had just recorded his first album, “An Acoustic Confusion.” Its release was greeted with a positive response. When Tilston was interviewed by “Zigzag” magazine, he acknowledged the gnawing fear that fame and fortune might adversely affect his pursuit of the muse.

Upon reading the interview, John Lennon graciously wrote a supportive letter to Tilston. He  advised the young man that, “Being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think.” Lennon invited Tilston to contact him if he liked.


Imagine being an aspiring musician and receiving a note of encouragement from an erstwhile Beatle. Alas, Tilston did not receive the epistle. It was diverted by an avaricious member of the “Zigzag” staff, who recognized that a letter from Lennon would have considerable value to a memorabilia collector.

Tilston was unaware of the letter’s existence until 2005. At that juncture, he was contacted by a collector, who wanted to verify whether the letter was authentic.

Years after Lennon’s untimely death, Tilston still remains active as a performer. In 2011, he recorded “The Reckoning” on his own Hubris label. The title track shared recognition from that year’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards as the Best Original Song Award.

For the film, the protagonist is renamed Danny Collins (Pacino) and reinvented as an American rocker. This fictional character has achieved vastly greater commercial success than Tilston actually enjoyed. Although he is well past his prime, Danny continues to maintain an active tour schedule and flies between gigs on a private jet.  He lives in a sprawling mansion and has a hot, young wife, Sophie (Katarina Cas).

One day, Danny’s long-term manager, Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer), announces that he has booked another tour for Danny. In addition, Frank advises Danny that he has a birthday present for him. He purchased a letter, which was written by John Lennon to Danny decades before.

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Danny Collins" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AndERTFMYd4

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Danny Collins” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AndERTFMYd4

Rather than being elated, the discovery of the long-lost letter triggers an epiphany for Danny. The musician wonders whether he has squandered his life. Has he frittered it away in vainglorious pursuit of the ephemeral pleasures of sex, drugs, and rock and roll?

Danny is consumed by one regret in particular.  Years before, he had impregnated one of his numerous groupies. Danny failed to discharge his paternal duties and instead ignored his son.

Danny decides that he will attempt to reconcile with his now grown son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale). Danny shows up unannounced at his son’s house, full of quixotic expectations.

Tom, who works for a contractor, has started a family of his own in suburban New Jersey. It consists of a lovely, supportive wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and an adorable, young daughter with ADD, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).  Not surprisingly, Tom has no interest in dealing with the father who had abandoned him. After a cursory exchange, Tom brusquely invites Danny to leave and never return.

Tom has delivered a clear and unmistakable message. However, Danny is undeterred. He remains committed to the notion of reconciling with his long-estranged son. Danny decides to make it his top priority

Danny tells his manager, Frank, that he is cancelling the scheduled tour. Exasperated, Frank protests that the financial consequences will be devastating. Danny is unphased.

He takes up long-term residence in a nearby chain hotel. There, he meets Mary Sinclaire (Annete Bening), the crusty head concierge. Mary makes clear that she is not a fan of Danny’s music or his schtick.

Undaunted by Tom’s caveats, Danny continues to visit him. Tom shares the unvarnished truth with Danny. He has spent his whole life trying to be the man that Danny isn’t. Ouch!

Although Pacino has top billing, he does not provide the film’s best performance. In the role of the son. Bobby Cannavale delivers a portrayal which is simultaneously nuanced and powerful. He brilliantly captures the character’s vulnerability that lies beneath a hardened facade. Jennifer Garner is wonderful as an empathetic wife, who provides emotional grounding to the family. In an engagingly naturalistic performance, Giselle Eisenberg is a bubbly delight.

Previously, Dan Fogelman wrote the screenplays for “Tangled” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” This time around, Fogelman not only wrote the screenplay, but makes his directorial debut. He can’t restrain Pacino from hamming it up. However, he elicits more measured performances from the rest of his cast.

“Danny Collins” depicts one man’s journey along the rocky road towards redemption. It touchingly explores whether a son can forgive the father, who abandoned him.

*** R (for language, drug use, some nudity) 106 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


Share Button