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Danny Collins, Review: Letter and spirit

Danny Collins, Review: Letter and spirit 

Dan Fogelman, in his feature directorial debut, gives ample evidence of a truly fertile imagination that builds an edifice on an apparently flimsy premise. Considering he’s the man who wrote Crazy, Stupid, Love; Tangled and Cars, this should not come as a surprise. After all, a good screenplay means convincing fiction, doesn’t it? Almost anything can trigger a film script: a news item, a book, a biography, a personal experience, or, as in Danny Collins, a long lost letter. It’s no ordinary letter. Sent in 1971 to a debutant 21year-old British singer/songwriter/musician named Steve Tilston, it was written by Beatle John Lennon.

Steve Tilston gave an interview to ZigZag — a small, underground magazine, to promote his debut LP, An Acoustic Confusion on the Village Thing label. Rod Stewart liked it and ordered a box to give to friends. The ZigZag interviewer complimented him on his album and asked Steve whether fortune might have an adverse effect on his career. Tilston replied, “Yes, yes, of course it will. My heart will suffer.” John Lennon, nine years older than Steve and already a legend, read the interview, was moved by Tilston’s fears, and sent him a letter, saying money and fame didn’t change anything.  “So whadya think of that.”

Tilston did not get the letter. It was sent to him care of ZigZag, and lost for 34 years —until 2005, when a collector who had acquired the letter contacted him to verify that he was the same person who the letter was addressed to. “I emailed him and said: Look, you can have the letter, but I’d really like to know what it means, what it says.” Enter Dan Fogelman, who bought the rights to use the letter as the centerpiece in a film script, which is almost entirely fiction, except for the interview and the letter.

Aging 1970s rocker Danny Collins (Al Pacino) cannot give up his indulgent, extravagant ways, even in his sixties. One day, his manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) traces and gifts him a 40-year-old undelivered letter written to him by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Inspired by Lennon's advice, Danny takes-off alone in his private plane and lands at New Jersey. He then acquires a massive tour bus and parks himself in a New Jersey Hilton hotel, in the hope of reaching out to the son he conceived on a one-night stand, and has never met. Tom (Bobby Cannavale) uses his mother’s maiden surname, Donnelly, and is still bitter toward his absent father, despite having a steady job, a loving wife (Jennifer Garner) and a precocious little girl, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg), in need of special care. Meanwhile, Danny flips for the hotel manager Mary (Annette Bening), who has a broken marriage behind her and does not care for the kind of music Danny makes. A roller-coaster of emotions awaits Danny as he tries to gain redemption, although he jokes that he will still go to hell. (Fact: Steve Tilston has a daughter named Martha and a son, Joe. Both followed in their father's footsteps. Martha Tilston is a professional singer and Joe Tilston sings and plays bass for the ska-punk band Random Hand).

Fogelman has good credentials and a narrative style that combines smooth flow with surprise cuts. Generous doses of cocaine, alcohol and female nudity never get out of proportion. Locations are very aptly chosen and depicted. His first draft of his screenplay had Danny’s grand-daughter suffering from severe asthma and necessary hospitalisation was to follow. By changing that to a learning disability and the need for a special school, against all advice from his well-wishers, Fogelman has probably made a good move. In any case, there is another medical/hospital track coming up later. Large parts of the Hotel scenes are contrived, as is the end, but at least the end is left open. The opening scene with the young Al Pacino sets the tone. End-credits appearance of Steve Tilston on screen is sudden and gratuitous, really irrelevant. Pacino’s singing scenes are cleverly executed--whether he is a singer of merit or not in real life is never an issue. ‘Hey Baby Doll’, the Collins’s signature song, does remind us of a Tilston title, Madam Muse.

Fogelman has a hand-picked cast to bring his characters to life, though there were some casting issues before the names were finalised. There is a recurring reference to ‘pre-nup’ between Danny and his fiancée, Sophie (Katarina Čas), which non-Americans might not understand. (A pre-nup, or pre-nupt, is a written contract between two people who are about to marry, setting out the terms of possession of assets, treatment of future earnings, control of the property of each, and potential division, if the marriage is later dissolved). New Jersey’s Hilton Hotel appears to have a staff of just five, which is hard to believe. Father-son confrontations and the daughter-in-law’s interaction with Danny are very realistically handled. And yes, there is plenty of John Lennon on the sound-track

Al Pacino describes his portrayal of Danny Collins as an amiable mix of Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart, the kind of cheerfully aging superstar who plays sold-out shows, packed with swaying gray-haired fans. At 75, Pacino is still a great presence on the screen. You wouldn’t have imagined him playing a 65 year-old rock-star till you heard about this film. Swagger, pomp, sniffing cocaine, confronting his inner devils, playing safe and avoiding performing his first new song in 40 years, Pacino has lost none of his skills. Four times Oscar nominee Annette Bening may be on more familiar territory as the no nonsense, headstrong hotel manager, yet not for a moment does she show any awe for Pacino or dither from her (slightly poorly etched) role. Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers’ Club) and Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine, Annie) make a cosy, very much in love, couple. Cannavale’s height contrasts well with Pacino’s, adding an extra dimension to the respective characterisations. It’s a treat to watch Christopher Plummer, 85, as he conveys an ocean on emotions through his eyes as well as his speech. Sex kitten Katarina Čas (Wolf of Wall Street) boasts of a good 'body' of work, while Giselle Eisenberg is an endearing little girl. Melissa Benoist as Jamie, the Hilton receptionist, and Josh Peck as Nicky Ernst, the hotel valet, are a gushing two-some, playing out less than convincing situations.

Danny Collins is a film inspired by a letter and is inspirational in spirit.

Rating: ***

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AndERTFMYd4

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

India



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