Movie Review: Searching for “Danny Collins”

I have never seen a movie about music or musicians that I didn’t like.  It doesn’t matter how good or bad the movie is, I am going to like it.  “Danny Collins” is probably a very bad movie, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Thinking about it today, I am certain it is deserving of scorn from all those who are not blind to the shortcomings of most rock and roll movies.  Were Danny Collins a repentant criminal trying to go straight and not a messed-up rock star on the mend, I would certainly be sneering along with the others at each trivial absurdity in his redemptive journey.  Instead, I am obsessed with finding the real Danny Collins  upon whom this cut and paste character is tangentially based.

Writer-director Dan Fogelman tells us from the beginning that this movie is mostly a fabrication, and I suppose that gives him license to play Dr. Frankenstein with fragments of rock star bios, but that is not going to stop me from trying to locate the graveyard from which Fogelman has exhumed his parts.  Our first clue is Danny being interviewed in 1971 at the beginning of his career, when he was a solo artist who wrote his own songs.  Then we see Danny today playing a concert of his old hits, with a full-scale rock orchestra, to a packed arena.  The first song he performs sounds like a Neil Diamond  rewrite of the Hollies’ “Carrie Ann.”   From these clues, Danny must have begun a solo career as a folk musician in the late sixties, and performed to huge crowds right up to the present,  so he could be based on anyone from Graham Nash to Bob Dylan.

Except that Danny has not written a new song in thirty years.  There is nobody who has sustained a performing career on this level for thirty years after dying creatively.  Sure, there are dozens of musicians who have made a living for life on one hit, but they struggle on  the roadhouse circuit; they don’t live lavishly on the proceeds from world tours in monstrous arenas.  Then there is the clincher.  John Lennon wrote this guy a letter of encouragement in 1971, which he only recently received.  And that, as it turns out, is probably the only bit of biographical truth in this movie.

In real life, Danny Collins turns out to be Steve Tilston, a key player in the British folk revival of the  early seventies who has played with almost all the more familiar names, but never made much of a name for himself as a solo artist.  His music is nothing like the music in the movie, and I doubt that Al Pacino’s very entertaining portrayal of Collins has any points of reference in Tilston’s life and personality. So the whole thing is a sham, with nothing but a lost letter from John Lennon as its gimmick.

Still, I loved every cliche-ridden moment of it, from Collins’  wrangling his grandson into an exclusive school for special-needs students to his giving away his Mercedes to a Jersey Hilton valet. Pacino is way out in the stratosphere on his own rock and roll fantasy, and no first-time director like Fogelman has the cajones to reel him in.  I saw parodies of many rock personalities in Pacino’s performance, but I was most often reminded of Bob Dylan, especially his comic stoop and ridiculous wardrobe.  But Dylan has written quite a few new songs in the last thirty years, which is perhaps part of the joke.  Those who purse their lips and turn up their noses at Pacino’s performance as hysterical overacting may dismiss this as another slipped rung in Pacino’s chaotic fall from grace, but fans will enjoy watching this singular performer doing his jumping jacks on a tightrope without a net.  Well, not entirely without a net.  He has two subtle and substantial performances from Christopher Plummer and Annette Bening to keep him on his feet even when it seems he is standing on his head.

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