In 1971, Danny Collins was a fresh face on the music scene. A kid, really. He was a young man with a gift for words and a certain sense with a musical line. Why, some were even comparing his work to former Beatle John Lennon.
Danny’s debut album was on its way up the charts when he sat down to do his first interview with the well-known music magazine Chime. And he was quite literally shaking in his boots. So much so that the long-haired, shades-wearing and cig-puffing writer he was sitting across from couldn’t help but laugh at his innocence.
Skip ahead about four decades and Danny can be called many things, but innocent ain’t one of ’em. He’s a hollowed-out aging rock star who’s still making bank from oldies concerts when he’s not too busy snorting coke and grabbing for the backside of whatever twentysomething he’s planning to marry this week.
That first album made him a star. But since then it’s been a slow slide—selling out to whatever the music label wants and keeping himself just high enough to hardly care. But he does care. Down deep he realizes that when he was shaking in his boots way back when—afraid of being consumed by the industry and losing himself and his music—there was good reason for it. And now he’s just sick of it.
It’s right about then that Frank, his manager, drops an unexpected birthday gift in Danny’s lap. It’s something Frank found online and has been holding onto until this special day, an undelivered 1971 letter to Danny from Mr. Strawberry Fields himself—John Lennon.
It turns out that Mr. Lennon had read that Chime interview, heard the comparisons to his own work, sensed Danny’s worries and reached out to the new kid with a handwritten missive. It was sent to the magazine, however, and the article writer snatched it up and sold it to a collector for big bucks.
What did it say? Oh, it simply encouraged Danny in his art. And it invited him to stop over and discuss career choices. That’s all.
But what would have happened if he had actually gotten that letter when it was sent? Danny wonders. Would his life had been different? Would his career have changed? Would he now feel a little less old and wasted and crumpled-up and empty?
It’s too late to meet John, but Danny comes to the conclusion that it’s not too late to try at life. He vows to stop his tour and do the kinds of things he thinks Lennon would have wanted.
He’ll quit the drugs. He’ll start to write again. He’ll … meet his son.
That adult son, Tom, is the result of a one-night stand with a groupie (who’s now deceased) from some 30 years before. And Danny does indeed make an effort to reach out to the man (along with his wife and their child). Tom, however, isn’t interested. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to be the man that you weren’t,” he tells the rocker. Tom’s wife, Samantha, reinforces that condemnation of Danny’s lifestyle, saying, “You did this. You did this to yourself. Shame on you.”
Their words aren’t unfair. Not really. With time, though, a healing starts to happen as Danny works earnestly to earn some small place in his son’s life. Stumbles and failures get in the way, but the film makes it clear that forgiveness, reconciliation and love can begin to blossom even in the worst of circumstances.
Tom talks openly of his love for his wife and daughter. Frank tells Tom a story about how Danny worked to help keep him sober. Danny steps away from his drug use, saying, “I’ve been abusing my body for the best part of four decades.” And he begins writing again. By movie’s end it’s evident that those steady and sometimes painful steps of change have made Danny into a better man who now dearly loves his son and longs to be part of his family.
Danny secrets away cocaine in a cross he wears around his neck. “Rock god” John Lennon’s letter hits Danny in an almost spiritual way, motivating him to turn away from all the nasty things in his life. Danny tries to demonstrate his truthfulness with the phrase “Hand to God.”
The camera watches Danny’s girlfriend through the steamed glass of her shower as she shaves her legs. Then it stays glued to her form as she steps out for a lengthy conversation—covered by nothing more than a mound of shaving cream on her crotch. It’s later revealed that she’s been having sex with a younger man in Danny’s bed. (Both are seen in their underwear.) Bikini-wearing young women attend an opulent pool party and are ogled by older attendees. Tom and Samantha kiss.
Frank tells of how he almost killed himself and others while drunk.
Nearly 40 f-words and two-dozen s-words. A few uses each of “a–” and “b–ch,” along with dingy references to male and female genitalia (“p–ck,” and “t-ts” among them). A picture of President Nixon has a crudity scrawled across it. Jesus’ name is misused a half-dozen times; God’s close to that as well (once with “d–n”).
Danny drinks good-sized glasses of booze throughout, occasionally getting staggeringly drunk. He snorts coke several times. And other partyers join in on the boozing, snorting and smoking. Danny’s girlfriend ends up passed out on the lawn after a party.
As the credits roll, we find out that the “undelivered Lennon letter” at this movie’s core was an actual thing. It was sent in the ’70s to a budding British musician worried about the corrupting influence of fame. He got it 35 years later. The rest of this flick, however, is total fantasy. Or as the film itself puts it, “Kind of based on a true story a little bit.”
Still, Al Pacino is totally convincing in his aging pop star role, and that’s in spite of being unable to carry a tune in a bucket. He and the rest of this very capable cast do exactly what’s needed to draw us into the compelling story of a burned-out rocker who longs to start over, a guy driven to connect with some small scrap of good after wallowing so long in sold-out hollowness.
In fact, if you add up all the well-crafted and family-celebrating parts of this pic, you could say it’s the film stock equivalent of a feel-good hit you hear on the radio and instantly fall in love with. But even a catchy tune can sometimes sound shrill with the wrong mix.
And that’s exactly the track Danny Collins is on.
For as we’re dancing to the lively beat of quality life lessons related to living our lives well and loving our families fiercely, we’re also blasted with the shoddy syncopation of a rocker snorting coke and getting falling-down drunk. We’re assailed with a tawdry music video that is a totally unnecessary, overlong ogling of Danny’s naked girlfriend. And our ears get rapped by the raunchy rhymes of gutter-level obscenities.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.