Dreamin’ Wild is a soft-spoken look at the Emerson Brothers lives and how the album they recorded as teens would find an audience decades later. Brothers Donnie and Joe (Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins) grew up on their family farm out in Fruitland, Washington, working the land by day and spending their evenings writing and recording music. Secluded from most of the outside world and not having much of a need for media technology, the family largely grew up without listening to or watching much TV and Music. Donnie had taught himself to play piano and guitar (among countless other instruments) and really had a gift for creating unique and beautiful music, while Joe learned to drum and would help his brother with whatever else was needed. After finally taking their shot and releasing an album in their late teens, the boys eventually gave up hope that their album would make it outside their community and both led different lives going forward.
Still making music decades later in 2011 and now playing with his wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), Donnie is shocked to get a call from Joe who still lives out at the family property. Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina) of Light in the Attic records in Seattle has fallen in love with their 1979 Dreamin’ Wild record and wants to get it repressed and distributed in the new world of streaming. Despite the money and potential for sharing their music, Donnie and Joe are both caught off guard by the opportunity and it forces them both to really look back to discover how they’ll move forward.
Director Bill Pohlad really captured my ear and attention back in 2015 at the SXSW Film Festival with his debut of Love & Mercy, a beautiful portrayal of Brian Wilson’s personal life and his genius contributions to music and The Beach Boys. Clearly, Pohlad has a thing for musical talent and his focus is on writers and performers who have a lot of depth and inner turmoil. There’s something in the music of Brian Wilson and Donnie Emerson that can’t be overlooked, as it feels as if you’re hearing sounds and melodies for the first time. Pohlad showcases this masterfully in his recreation of studio recordings and exploring how deep that music is felt by them. To Donnie, the music is everything for him and it’s the only thing that made sense when he was playing. For Joe, he was just happy to be involved and playing with his brother, knowing that Donnie was gifted in a way most aren’t.
Preservation of physical media has becoming exceptionally important in a world that relies on the cloud and streaming, which makes this true story even more amazing when you learn that the vinyl for Dreamin’ Wild was rediscovered in 2008 at an antique shop in Spokane, Washington. This music collected fell in love with the album and passed it around to friends of his, generating buzz in online forums and spreading the word of an album unearthed. A couple years later, the advent of Spotify and music streaming really gave new life to so much music for younger and older generations for the first time around the world, leading many new fans back to the past to hear enriching music that just doesn’t exist in todays alternative/pop/hip-hop landscape. That the Emerson’s sound connected with so many people decades later is such a beautiful and wonderful thing, but it was also really confusing for Donnie and Joe.
Dreamin’ Wild wrestles with the ideas of fame and finally achieving it after a lifetime of pouring your soul into an industry that never had a place for you. The term “overnight success” is fairly accurate in terms of the Emerson’s story, which made an influx of money and opportunities challenging for men who were now almost in their 50’s. Casey Affleck does most of the heavy lifting with his emotionally resonant performance, wanting to make the very most of his new opportunities but feeling like they may chain him to his past and to a person he no longer is. Noah Jupe plays a younger Donnie brilliantly and so full of confidence that it’s such a stark contrast when you seen Affleck’s dour and self-conscious approach to his life in present day. Goggin’s brings a subtle tenderness to the story, always having love and admiration for his more talented brother and feeling happy just to be around family. To round out a great cast is Beau Bridges, playing the boys farmer father who emphasized a need for great work ethic on their farm, but also in their work as musicians.
While it doesn’t always flow as smoothly or as quickly as one may like, Dreamin’ Wild makes up for some pacing with some genuinely wonderful music and a touching look at family and how their support can make the biggest difference in your world. There are some truly touching moments between the brothers and with their father as well, dismantling years of generational trauma and pushing past masculine tendencies in moments of love. I immediately went to listen to the music after seeing the film and I’m really looking forward to seeing where Pohland takes his talents next, as I’m sure there will be more music discovery along the way!
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