If there’s one thing you can trust Hollywood to do, it’s get rock stars all wrong. From the boilerplate cornpone of Jailhouse Rock to the ecstatic camp of The Doors to the antibacterial sentimentality of Almost Famous and beyond, movies about rock musicians have ever been a repository of their creators’ projections about rock ’n’ roll mythos, or a means of preserving hoary old tropes about hedonism, persona, compromise, and always, always, always redemption. In many cases, the films are satisfying anyway, thanks to the skillful deployment of good songs, deft editing, and the magnetic performers. (Purple Rain is a generic melodrama motorized by unflinching misogyny—not just in the internet outrage sense—and narrative cliché; it’s also stirring, thrilling, dazzling, indelible, because it’s Prince in 1984. All other bets are off.) Pop music and narrative cinema are ideally suited to each other, because both are cheap, commercial art forms that regularly transcend their low birth to achieve the highest, most sublime expression available. Some kinds of love, as Lou Reed reminds us, the possibilities are endless.
It would take a supreme act of will to suggest that Danny Collins, which posits Al Pacino as an over-the-hill singer on a quest for redemption, offers much in the way of sublime expression. The premise is both flimsy and tantalizing: Though Danny is still popular enough to fill arenas, he’s dissatisfied with the grannies who flock to his concerts to hear him sing the same old hits, so he numbs himself with cocaine and Scotch, a hot French fiancée a third his age, and, it would appear, more money than Elton John and David Geffen combined. Then his manager (Christopher Plummer, also somewhat inexplicable—though gloriously so—in his velvet blazer and trilby) surprises him with a birthday gift that changes everything. In 1971, when he was just a fledgling folkie in the mode of Loudon Wainwright’s song “Talkin’ Bob Dylan,” young Danny did an interview to promote his debut album, Playing Pretend. He reluctantly admitted that, yes, he was scared about what might become of his artistry if, as the interviewer (Nick Offerman) proposed, “You’re gonna be huge, kid.” As fate would have it, John Lennon and Yoko Ono read the interview and wrote to Bobby, care of the magazine, assuring him that “being rich and famous doesn’t change your life. Call us, we can help,” and included their home number. He never received the letter, never even knew of its existence. Playing Pretend flopped, and Danny gave in to a different kind of compromise, singing bubblegum numbers written by pros and handpicked by the label. They of course became big hits, and he became a big star. The next 40 years passed in a blur of private jets, billboards on Sunset Boulevard, and the hollow agony of unearned glory.
The letter shakes Danny to his core and inspires him to change everything about his life, a process that involves chucking his cheating fiancée, canceling his tour, and heading to the wilds of New Jersey in the hopes of connecting with the son he’s never met. The story that follows is like a checklist from a how-to-write-a-screenplay handbook, each beat on the hero’s journey to redemption dutifully ticked in the prescribed order.
The big problem with Danny Collins is Danny Collins, a weird hybrid of late Rod Stewart, mid-period Neil Diamond, and, I don’t know, a less-sexual Tom Jones? Rick Nelson in reverse? The math doesn’t quite make it. The one song they could scrape together to demonstrate his hit-making prowess is a C-minus Tommy James retread (written by Ryan Adams). His stage show is like Bobby Vinton at an Atlantic City casino. We know Danny is M.O.R. and O.L.D., but the film removes all the restrictions that might have lent his plight even the vaguest connection to reality; his vanity is mirrored in the film’s design—and in its use of actual Lennon songs as emotional shortcuts throughout. It’s not enough that he be famous, he must be so famous that people recognize him everywhere he goes; not merely a guy who had some hits, but a cherished entertainer whose songs make the whole world sing; not merely rich, but mansions-and-chartered-jets rich. He has the kind of success that only exists at the beginning of commercial films so it can be lost two-thirds of the way through (then, obviously, regained at the end).
Never mind that the script is “kind of, a little bit” based on the story of journeyman folksinger Steve Tilston, who really did receive a letter from John and Yoko 40 years after they sent it. They didn’t have to base Danny on a specific guy, but why not a guy whose troubles stem from somewhere outside his own heroic capacity for self-reflection? Why not make him a musician who doesn’t sell out the Greek at age 70? Why not let his artistic compromises lead to compromised rewards? Films like this are only interested in superlatives, which, one suspects, is what draws stars like Pacino to appear in them. But in this case, the character’s superlatives are exactly what prevents Pacino from being convincing.
I can see where this might sound a little fussy. I was looking forward to seeing Pacino in Author! Author! mode again—it’s an underutilized color in his palette. But his eagerness to play flawed-but-lovable can’t obscure the utter implausibility of the character. And yet, it’s Pacino, really trying something different. You see a lot of very talented actors in Danny Collins—Pacino, Plummer, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner—striving to make the material worthy of them. And it pays off. The supporting cast saves the film from oblivion. Best of all is Bobby Cannavale, who plays Danny’s reluctant son with a defiant pathos that gives Pacino something real to work with. In the end, all the musician stuff is just a loss leader to allow the story of this father-son reconciliation to play out in the sorrow, anger, confusion, and longing that Cannavale communicates, seemingly without trying. It’s a thrilling, totally unexpected performance in the midst of a muddled film, a fantastic album track buried on side two of an LP full of failed singles.