Having explored the life of one musical genius with his Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, writer-director Bill Pohlad tackles another real musician of similarly paternal gifts in this gentle, big-hearted backwoods drama. The only difference is that this one never found fame, and until the New York Times ran a story on him and his drum-playing brother in 2012, almost nobody had heard of him.
What Donnie Emerson did do back in 1979, via the kind of divine magic blessed only to the greats, was record a classic rock album aged only 17. In an improvised recording studio in the woods on his parents’ Washington State farm, and with his brother Joe on sticks, he recorded Donnie & Joe Emerson’s ageless ‘Dreamin' Wild’... to zero fanfare. Three decades and the invention of the internet later, it was finally discovered online, re-released by a record label, and described as a ‘godlike symphony to teenhood’ on Pitchfork.
Instead of a movie high on this long-overdue recognition and full of rocking out at gigs, Pohlad takes the story in a surprising and affecting direction. Splitting focus across those two timelines, he shows how the young, hopeful, restlessly creative Donnie (A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe) morphs into a hangdog fortysomething (Casey Affleck, giving good hangdog) unable to get past the sour disappointment of his unfulfilled talent, even in the face of belated acclaim. A guilt lingers, too, over the financial toll his musical ambitions took on his supportive dad (Beau Bridges).
While the film is based on that New York Times article, ‘Fruitland’ by Steven Kurutz, the meat of the story comes long the journo has departed the scene, with Donnie trying to shake off his new-found status as a heritage act – and his old tunes – and reassert his currency as a musician.
While Dreamin’ Wild often plays in a minor key, it’s no gloomy requiem to unfulfilled talent
The best scenes have him and Joe (Walton Goggins) struggling to put the band back together during anguished rehearsals joined – and defused – by Donnie’s musician wife (Zooey Deschanel). Goggins is great as a man encumbered with neither the talent nor tortured nature of his brother, who nurses quiet regrets of his own but keeps showing up for his family. Kudos, too, to Jack Dylan Grazer who carries that same gentle depth into his scenes as the younger Joe.
But while Dreamin’ Wild often plays in a minor key, it’s no gloomy requiem to unfulfilled talent. Instead, Pohland forges a tender ballad of reconciliation with the past and healing that’s flooded with the complex dynamics of family life. Oh, and the songs aren’t bad either.
Dreamin’ Wild premiered at the Venice Film Festival.