Forget that Al Pacino can’t sing. As Danny Collins, he plays a pop singer whose prime is behind him, with a professional legacy strong enough to ensure that he can still bring out a crowd to a concert. He’s a star who’s always on. The world is his audience, and he treats every person he comes into contact with as he might while he’s on stage: all charm. He’s even got the look of a pop star of a certain age, as he’s always dressed with a colorful scarf. As for the voice? Well, the film avoids Pacino’s lack of chops. Not that they really matter. How many male pop singers who still perform today in some capacity sound that good?
Danny Collins opens with the titular character still fully capable of drawing an audience, but it also shows a man without purpose. That changes when his best friend/manager (Christopher Plummer) gives him a birthday present – a personal letter from John Lennon, sent in 1970 but never delivered, encouraging Collins to focus on his art and not worry about the chance of money corrupting him. As Collins looks at his life, and how Lennon’s advice goes against how Collins ultimately built his career, he decides to start over. He boards his private jet, flies to New Jersey, and checks into a Hilton, which he quickly fills with a grand piano to write original music for the first time in 30 years. He also flirts endlessly with the Hilton manager (Annette Bening), and shows up on the doorstep of the son (Bobby Cannavale) he’s never met. Throughout it all, Danny is always in a lighthearted mood, making jokes and quickly connecting with people. Any challenge he comes across, he meets with either his charm or his checkbook.
What makes Danny Collins work, aside from the commitment of its star (which, I should note, has Pacino at his best in years), is how it sets itself up to be rather conventional – and then avoids the accompanying conventional ending. It’s a story about an aging pop star trying to correct his mistakes in life. That includes trying to get sober, reengage his creativity, begin a new romance and become a good father and grandfather. As it turns out, he can’t do most of these things, if any of them. The fantastical story that opens the film slowly but absolutely becomes grounded as it goes along, making the film’s ending unexpectedly welcome.