The film Danny Collins presents a tale of a veteran singer going through the motions, and tired of doing the same old songs for the same crowds who've grown old with him. Al Pacino stars as Danny, who became a pop star in the 1970s, and has lived a life of stardom for four decades. He drinks, does cocaine, and has been married and divorced three times (including a marriage to Gilligan's Island star Dawn Wells). He shares his California mansion with the much younger Sophie (Katarina Cas), who usually busies herself around the house instead of supporting Danny on tour. One day, Danny discovers that one of the ways she stays busy is named Judd (Brian Smith). That ends their relationship, but Danny forgives her for her infidelity.
Danny leaves the house after attending the birthday party Sophie has arranged for him. At the party, he gets a surprise gift from his longtime manager, Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer). Frank acquired a letter from a John Lennon fan regarding Danny. As a young singer, Danny had told rock journalist Guy DeLoach (Nick Offerman) that Lennon had inspired him as a singer and songwriter. John and Yoko Ono had read the piece and written to the magazine in the hopes of reaching out to Danny. Guy never delivered the letter to Danny, and sold it to a collector before he died. He takes the letter with him, cancels his concert dates, and checks into a New Jersey hotel. The staff there recognize him, and are eager to meet his every need, including hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening). They like the charming Danny, though Mary won't take him up on his dinner offer.
Part of Danny's stay involves writing new songs, which he abandoned thirty years ago. The other part involves reconnecting with his estranged family, who live near his hotel. He meets his daughter-in-law, Samantha Donnelly (Jennifer Garner) and his granddaughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg). Samantha has contacted her husband, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who rushes home to confront his father. They have never met, and Ton doesn't want to see him again. Danny persists, and helps Tom and Samantha get an interview with a New York school that will deal with the needs of Hope, who has been diagnosed with ADHD. Tom, though, has been hiding a secret from the pregnant Samantha that could affect the Donnelly family more deeply than Hope's problems. Meanwhile, Frank has some news about Danny's finances that makes him quickly set up a concert at a small club, and wondering if his old and new fans will embrace new material from him.
Part of the story of Danny Collins is based on an actual event. John Lennon did reach out to a British folk singer in the early 1970s, only to not have the letter reach that person for nearly four decades. The movie marks the directorial debut of Dan Fogelman, who also wrote the screen story. Fogelman not only tells the story of inspiration, but also of atonement. The events around Danny's birthday make him realize he's neither the singer nor the man he wants to be. He starts with Sophie, then reaches out to a family he'd never contacted. Each step Danny takes away from the man he had been grows more difficult, but is necessary for him to be less self-absorbed. In addition, Fogelman includes a number of Lennon's somgs from his solo career, from Cold Turkey to Nobody Told Me. They serve as a contrast to the catchy, but lightweight, Hey Baby Doll (which sounds a bit like the Neil Diamond hit Sweet Caroline), which shows that Danny somehow lost his way in his attempt to be a writer of substance the way Lennon had been. Fogelman leaves some of the questions about Danny's music unanswered, but Danny knows himself well enough to realize what his fans want.
Pacino is decent as a singer, and he gives Danny a tired feel. A part of him never wants to sing Hey Baby Doll again. On the other hand, he has made a name for himself on that song, even though his career success meant he never became the rock star he wanted to be. He can be very engaging with fans and other strangers, but very lacking with the people he lets get close to him. The letter helps to make him determined to put as much into family as he does into touring and his material wealth. Pacino show that work in progress very well as he gives up drugs, but not drink. He shows how attentive he is as Tom deals with issues that Samantha needs to know. Danny also finds that some of his longtime habits are hard to change, especially after he puts on a small show that includes friends old and new. In short, Pacino rocks in this role.
He also gets great support from the others in the cast. Bening, as Mary, tries to keep things strictly business between herself and her guest, but finds Danny's charm too much to ignore. His presence allows her and her staff to be fans in a different sort of way. She does let down her guard at points, especially as he tries to get back to songwriting and asks for her lyrical input. Plummer keeps Danny's musical life in control as Frank, who's as grumpy as he is helpful. He shows disdain for New Jersey known to both Danny and Tom. He also lets Tom know why the relationship between himself and the singer has lasted for so many years. Garner, Cannavale, and Eisenberg are engaging as a family struggling with conflicting attitudes about Danny while they deal with bigger issues of their own. Offerman is amusing as the journalist who literally and figuratively blows smoke at young Danny (Eric Schneider). The film's concluding words come from Steve Tilston, the English singer-songwriter whose story became the inspiration for Danny Collins (Tilston still writes and performs, as of this writing).
Each of us reaches points in life where the decisions we make follow us for many years to come. In Danny Collins, the singer made a critical decision to be more of a singer and less of an artist. The decision ensured a life that had been filled with financial security, but a 40-year-old letter makes Danny reexamine the reason he pursued music in the first place. He wonders if the artist in him and the family he just came to know can still be a part of him personally, or of the public wants him to stick to his greatest hits. At his age, Danny Collins has already created a big part of his legacy. He wants to achieve other things, but he wonders if they can be incorporated into the persona who has pleased audiences and sold millions of records.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Danny Collins 3.5 stars. Do new songs await?