Hollywood loves a biopic. And within that greater subgenre, an area of deep focus is the music biopic. From 1909’s Origin of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to last year’s Elvis, filmmakers have long been fascinated with the lives and talents of musicians. These stories have resulted in many Oscars, and their formatting has become recognizable enough to inspire parodies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. What most of these stories have in common is that their subjects are generally well known. Writer-director Bill Pohlad, already steeped in the subgenre, having directed 2014’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, here turns his attention instead to much lesser known musicians. These are Donnie and Joe Emerson, who the internet rediscovered in the early 2010s after decades in obscurity. A New York Times piece from the time by Steven Kurutz inspired Pohlad to adapt this story to film. Ending up more as a family drama than a musical hagiography, Dreamin’ Wild goes far on the strength of its actors.
In the late 1970’s, self taught music prodigy Donnie Emerson (Noah Jupe) lives on the family farm, but dreams of stardom. His brother Joe (Jack Dylan Grazer) supports him on drums, and their father Don Sr. (Beau Bridges) and mother Salina (Barbara Deering) support them both by providing instruments and building a recording studio in the woods on their property. The Emerson boys release the self-produced album Dreamin’ Wild when Donnie is 15 and Joe is 17. But flashing forward to 2011, Donnie (played as an adult by Casey Affleck) hasn’t achieved his dream. He has a family he loves, including wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel) and two kids, but he’s no music star. He and Nancy run a small recording studio and continue to play small gigs like weddings. Out of the blue, Donnie receives a phone call from Joe (now played by Walton Goggins) that a man from a record label is out at the farm and wants to talk to them about Dreamin’ Wild. While the relationship doesn’t seem to have reached the level of estrangement, there certainly appears to be a lack of closeness between the now city-dwelling Donnie and his parents and brother, who still live on the family farm. The newcomer is Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina) from Light in the Attic Records. Drawn to the brothers by a wild story of the internet age, where a collector in Montana found the brothers’s record and shared it among friends, eventually reaching a greater internet following on the West Coast. Joe and the older Emersons are elated. Donnie is suspicious of Sullivan’s intentions. But it soon becomes clear that Sullivan is genuine, and Light in the Attic re-releases the record to an interested public. He also sets up a reunion concert for the Emersons. Here is where the tension starts. Donnie sees the show as a place to showcase new music he’s written in the interim and jump-start his dreams of a hit music career. Joe, who has turned to farm work and building since the record was first released, just wants to have some fun with his brother. Following a messy post-show confrontation with his family, Donnie has to come to terms with his past and decide how to move forward.
Dreamin’ Wild has the benefit of being a story that a lot of viewers won’t be especially familiar with. And it is an interesting story, though certainly not one that is high-stakes. Most of the real drama occurs in the last act, which makes the early going feel somewhat inert. Pohlad tries to balance this with cutting back and forth between the time periods, as well as some interesting directorial choices, such as a late shot of the young and older Donnie sitting next to each other in the field where he had written so many songs. Overall, Pohlad’s script is good without rising to the level of great. It is brought down a bit near the end by a monologue given to Affleck that unfortunately spells some of the emotion out too directly. A highlight of the technical side of the film is Arnaud Potier’s cinematography, which is bright and warm. Potier takes full advantage of the beautiful Washington State vistas, particularly in the early parts of the film. The film also uses some of Donnie’s original songs alongside more well-known music, and they do stick out as well-written tracks.
While the technical side of the film is solid, what really sticks out are the performances. Across his career, there seems to be an innate melancholy to Casey Affleck. He puts that to great use here as a man who has tried and seemingly failed to achieve his dream, only to have it placed in front of him again. Jupe, as the younger Donnie, does well in portraying the boy’s love of music and the inborn talent he has for it. Walton Goggins, who is a highlight of any production he is a part of, similarly shines here. His Joe is a good man who seems a little lost. He is dedicated to his family, but seems to have left any ambition of his own behind in support of his brother. While the stories are certainly different, the dynamic between Affleck and Goggins reminded me greatly of that of Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton in Sam Raimi’s masterpiece A Simple Plan.
Beau Bridges is wonderful in the smallest of the main roles, allowed to show genuine love at every turn by the actions of the real-life Don Sr. While many musicians have stories of parents who don’t believe in their dreams, Don Sr. lost huge chunks of the family farm when the risks he took in building an expensive recording studio and supporting Donnie’s trip to Los Angeles to cut a solo album didn’t pan out. Through all of this, he just wants his sons to feel good about themselves and to live their dream. Bridges portrays this genuine goodness without ever coming across as syrupy or over the top. The film does unfortunately waste Deschanel in a fairly stock-standard, underdeveloped wife role.
While not a great film, Dreamin’ Wild is a good film with outstanding performances. It’s recommended for those looking for a solid drama at the movies this weekend
Dreamin’ Wild is in theaters beginning August 4.