Danny Collins is a movie that absolutely depends upon the songs of John Lennon to make it work. That fact must have presented tremendous challenges for you, since you are not only responsible for obtaining the rights to the music used in the film, but also for helping place it within the narrative structure.
This soundtrack is not simply a series of secondary aesthetic choices; it is the skeleton upon which the whole film rests. Al Pacino plays Danny Collins as a dissolute impression of a latter day Neil Diamond. A former folk singer turned Vegas shill, Collins finds out that none other than John Lennon once mailed him a hand written letter. This is a letter that Collins only sees—for the first time—forty years after the fact, as his career is winding down.
The details contained in that letter are what set the story, and your work, in motion. Lennon’s music is interspersed with the feel-good, folksy anthems that Collins regurgitates nightly to crowds of blue rinse groupies. The contrast between the two paints a pretty dismal picture of what kind of life Collins chose to pursue after his early success.
Danny Collins often teeters on the edge of sentimentality, but is saved by three things: an understated and knowing performance by Pacino, a great supporting cast, and a script that contains enough nuance that it overcomes some pretty heavy handed plot devices. And your musical choices also help to shepherd the film through what could be maudlin nonsense to something with some occasional weight.
Lennon’s music lends a borrowed gravitas to the proceedings and Pacino strives to earn that substance by making the character of Collins something other than the usual late-life turn around. Pacino specifically plays against type—his performance is knowing and low key. The narrative tension isn’t built upon Collin’s awakening self-awareness (he is already well aware of his failings) but rather with whether or not he chooses to engage his shortcomings in a meaningful way.
This inner struggle is an interesting echo of much of John Lennon’s later solo work, when he was trying to come to terms with who he was as a man and with his place in the world. Pacino—in a real return to form—manages to convey that struggle without it being Shakespearean in tone. This isn’t Scent of a Woman Pacino; in fact it is an oddly intimate film, given its showbiz veneer.
The second and third act of the film trace Collins’ attempts to reconnect with both his family and his musical roots. It is here that the movie struggles most with tone, but the performances—from Annette Bening to Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner, as well as a crusty turn by Christopher Plummer as Collin’s long-suffering friend/manager—really save the film from itself.
The underlying themes of this film are more concerned with a grudging attentiveness than the usual forced epiphanies that Hollywood often thrives on. If Pacino, and by extension the film, echoes any particular sentiment of Lennon’s it is the idea that living is easy with your eyes closed. It is when you open them wide that it becomes complicated and messy.
And worth living.