Released back in 2015, filmmaker Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy was a bisected biopic of the brilliant but tormented musician Brian Wilson, whose preternatural gifts for songwriting and producing were waylaid by a complicated — to say the least — relationship with his family and inner demons, only to tentatively remerge decades later as a celebrated figure whose genius was belatedly recognized. The film was a modest hit, and so while it might be cynical to say Pohlad’s follow-up, Dreamin’ Wild, simply runs back the same formula, it’s not entirely inaccurate. The director’s latest is based on the lives of Donnie and Joe Emerson, who, as teenagers living in rural Washington in the late ’70s, taught themselves how to write and perform music, ultimately recording a self-produced pop album before either boy had turned 20. When the album failed to break through, the two men abandoned their dreams of becoming rockstars, returning to anonymous, potentially unfulfilling, lives. However, after the album was exhumed by vinyl enthusiasts in the early 2010s, with lead single “Baby” even becoming something of an online sensation, the Emerson brothers were thrust back into the spotlight, receiving the sort of adulation as middle-aged men they’d only dreamed of as adolescents.
It’s an exceedingly “nice” story of hardworking, salt-of-the-earth folk being plucked out of obscurity and elevated onto the national stage — Jimmy Fallon even proclaimed “Baby” his “new jam” while appearing on Andy Cohen’s talk show — not because of slick marketing or transitory trends, but rather because their earnest melodies just connected with people. It’s not, however, what anyone would describe as a particularly sensational series of events, as the brothers were spared the usual rock-and-roll clichés: there’s no drug abuse or alcoholism here, nor womanizing, run-ins with the law, tragedy, or even a shady record label holding back royalties. The conflict in the film is decidedly minor and almost entirely internalized with Donnie (Casey Affleck as an adult and Noah Jupe as a teen), the inarguable talent of the outfit, butting up against the musical limitations of Joe (Walton Goggins and Jack Dylan Grazer splitting duties), and the pressures of capitalizing on an improbable second chance at success. It’s the sort of film where no one would dare accuse it of embellishment because who would bother to fabricate a story so utterly bereft of dramatic fireworks?
Functioning like Searching for Sugar Man if the film began at the end of the story, we open on Joe phoning Donnie to let him know that a kindly record label rep has reached out expressing interest in the album they recorded as teens. Intrigued but weary of being taken advantage of, Donnie agrees to meet with Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina), whose Light in the Attic Records specializes in unearthing and celebrating buried gems. The label will handle remastering and repressing the album, as well as promoting it to the national media (one of the more knowing beats in the film is Matt’s enthusiasm over the infamously stingy Pitchfork giving the album an 8 out of 10); all Donnie and Joe have to do is soak up the veneration. But as Joe and his father, Don Sr. (Beau Bridges), extol Donnie’s musical genius — not only writing all the songs, but performing most of the instruments and handling lead vocals — Donnie’s anxiety becomes palpable, with the camera locked onto Affleck as he silently attempts to retreat back inside of himself. Donnie and his wife, Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), run a failing recording studio and moonlight performing at local weddings, but when Matt mentions a showcase gig in Seattle and perhaps a tour thereafter, Donnie begins to reflect on how much his family sacrificed for his initial attempt at stardom and what it means to make good on his promise the second time around. With Joe back behind the drumkit and undeniably rusty after 30+ years of inactivity, Donnie struggles to whip the act into shape, forced to assume the role of exacting taskmaster to his affable yet cripplingly humble older brother.
The film benefits enormously from a prickly turn by Affleck, providing the closest thing to a conventional dramatic engine. While the rest of the film’s characters marvel at the good fortune and the remarkable turn of events, Donnie becomes increasingly consumed by a maniacal need to prove himself and justify the faith placed in him as a teenager (including Don Sr. mortgaging the farm to pay for his youngest son’s failed attempts to make it in Hollywood). Treating Joe as an outlet for all of his frustrations — Goggins, who excels at playing vainglorious rascals, is cast against type here as an introverted second banana who’s quick to doubt himself — and not-so-subtly positioning Nancy to take his brother’s place in the band, Donnie’s unrelenting drive to recapture the sound from three decade earlier and prove that he’s not merely a novelty saps all the euphoria from the dream scenario. The more Donnie criticizes Joe for failing to maintain the tempo, it becomes fair to question whether he’s merely projecting his own neurosis over failing to live up to the greatness everyone assumed was always inside of him.
It’s an especially nuanced depiction of imposter syndrome as self-sabotage, capitalizing on Affleck’s quiet intensity, but the film’s attempts to generate tension over whether the Emersons will sound tight enough for the big show feel half-hearted and almost an acknowledgement that the only thing of real importance is that they were rediscovered in the first place. The film seems to be arguing that what’s of paramount importance is that the music resonates with people, and if Dreamin’ Wild amounts to little more than an extension of the brothers’ feel-good press campaign, then so be it. There’s a queasy and all-but-unavoidable coziness between the film’s subjects and the film itself — Donnie Emerson provides new original music to the soundtrack as well as vocals for the film’s numerous performance sequences, and Donnie, Joe, and Nancy all appear as themselves in a fourth-wall-breaking coda — which has the effect of painting the entire thing as an authorized dramatization of some super swell, hugely talented people. That it transcends mere vanity project status is a testament to the actors and the enduring qualities of the music (“Baby” really is quite the earworm, never betraying the inexperience or humble origins of its creators), but it’s fair to question whether the subject matter genuinely warranted the big screen treatment or if the original New York Times arts section article and an accompanying Spotify playlist would have sufficed.
DIRECTOR: Bill Pohlad; CAST: Casey Affleck, Walton Goggins, Zooey Deschanel, Noah Jupe; DISTRIBUTOR: Roadside Attractions; IN THEATERS: August 4; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 50 min.