Review: Dreamin’ Wild Brings Music, and Dreams, of Days Gone By Back to the Surface

For reasons I’m very aware of, this one caught me off guard in the best possible way. When I was a much younger man (late teens-early 20s), I was in a “band” with my brother and our two cousins (also brothers), and we recorded a lot of music on a second-hand 8-track recorder. Most of it was passable, not especially radio friendly (quality wise, not because of anything we were singing about), and really never meant for anyone’s ears but our own. But in my mind, I envisioned a time when these tapes would one day be discovered by I don’t know who, and get released or somehow unearthed, not as some last classic recordings, but maybe somebody would say “Hey, this is so bad.” 

What I didn’t realize until watching the based-on-a-true-story Dreamin’ Wild was that something similar happened to singer/songwriter Donnie Emerson and his brother/drummer Joe, living in a remote area of eastern Washington state, who actually recorded an album of the same name that was released in 1979 and went nowhere, thus ending their hopes of becoming music sensations. Donnie went on to record a couple solo albums, but a combination of a bad record deal and anxiety over being perfection-minded pushed Donnie out of the singer/songwriter game and into buying and running a studio (where other artists get to live out their rock dreams), getting married, and having kids.

Written and directed by Bill Pohlad (Love & Mercy), based on a New York Times article by Steven Kurutz, Dreamin’ Wild tells the almost impossible tale of an indie record label that rediscovered that debut album and sought the brothers out in the hopes of remastering it and re-releasing it, with a tour to follow. And while that part of the story seems perfect as the stuff of cinema storytelling, the film has deeper themes of lost dreams, second chances, and how the seeming obliteration of one's deeper desires can haunt a person for life, especially when the chance to revive those dreams presents itself. Casey Affleck plays Donnie with a sensitivity and practicality that suits the material beautifully, with Zooey Deschanel as his musically inclined wife, Nancy. The two run the studio together, while also being a part of a well-liked cover band. With kids and bills piling up, they have trouble making ends meet and are contemplating selling the studio.

The film is primarily set in the early 2010s, when indie record representative Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina) tracks down the brothers (Donnie lived in Spokane at the time) to gauge their interest in having the record put out again, sounding  better than ever. But a great portion of the movie also looks back at that late-’70s period when the brothers were recording that first record in a studio space built and paid for by their logger father Don Sr. (Beau Bridges), who sunk a great deal of money into Donnie’s career, losing much of his property in the process. If nothing else, Dreamin’ Wild is a love letter from son to father, and the absolute faith his father had in his passion for music is admirable to the point of being heartbreaking, especially when Donnie effectively gives up.

The great Walton Goggins plays the older Joe (Noah Jupe plays teenage Donnie, with Jack Dylan Grazer as young Joe), and he has not kept up with drumming to the point where, as an adult, early rehearsals for an upcoming label showcase are not going well. But their shaky bond brings up feelings in Donnie that he likely didn’t realize were still active: his shame at draining his father’s resources some 30-plus years earlier; the fact that his brother was never much of a musician and that he just wanted him around because Joe also believed in him so much; and the fear of getting his hopes up again for some level of success. It all contributes to Donnie making spontaneous and perhaps poor choices as a grownup as well.

And it helps that the music is actually quite good, powerful in its own youthful way, as if Donnie was largely unaware of the music scene overall in the late 1960s. We get a brief glimpse of the real Emerson family at the end of the film, and it’s good to know that Donnie is still in good voice and that they are all so tight. Per usual, Affleck is perfectly understated, allowing underlying emotions to bubble up just enough for us to know they’re there. As Donnie makes peace with the past and the more promising future as they converge in his head, Dreamin’ Wild solidifies into a unique and special kind of music film, even if it is leisurely paced. The story seems custom-made for the movies, even as the emotions and doubts that aren’t normally part of success stories such as this add a layer of authenticity to the proceedings.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.