Dreamin’ Wild: a smart, sensitively structured musical biopic

Following on from his Brian Wilson biopic ‘Love & Mercy’, Bill Pohlad crafts a poignant, resonant film about the Emerson Brothers, who found fame in their 50s when an album they cut in the ’70s resurfaced.

25 September 2022

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Casey Affleck and Zooey Deschanel as Donnie and Nancy Emerson in Dreamin’ Wild (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Venice International Film Festival.

Director Bill Pohlad proved himself capable of making more than the average music biopic with 2014’s Love & Mercy, an arresting and complex depiction of Beach Boy Brian Wilson. He swung a pendulum between Wilson’s life in the 1960s, when the Beach Boys scaled new artistic peaks with their album Pet Sounds, and the 1980s, when mental illness and abuse from Wilson’s manager rendered Wilson painfully fragile. Providing emotionally vivid snapshots of a musician during two distinct periods of their life is a technique he deploys once again to tell the story of singer-songwriter Donnie Emerson.

A long article by journalist Steven Kurutz informs the film’s story of Donnie (Casey Affleck) and Joe (Walton Goggins), who, in the late 70s, when Donnie was 15 and Joe 17, put out a record called Dreamin’ Wild under the name of the Emerson Brothers. This record lay dormant for 30 years until it was rediscovered in 2012, giving the Emerson Brothers – especially Donnie, who did the bulk of the work – a second shot at popular recognition.

Pohlad understands the cinematic importance of the particular location of the Emerson family farm – Fruitland, a tiny rural idyll in Washington state. Cinematographer Arnaud Potier helps Pohlad visualise the sun-kissed, hard-toiling teendom that formed the backdrop of Donnie’s songwriting, an activity he pursued in the middle of the night in the log cabin built by his supportive dad, Don Sr. (Beau Bridges), for that very purpose.

The performances of Affleck and Noah Jupe as the same man 30 years apart could scarcely be more different. Jupe glows with excitement for the future, while Affleck is haunted by what his failed music career has cost Don Sr. in land, money and health. The older Donnie runs a struggling recording studio with his wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), with whom he has two kids – left largely out of the picture, save for a few moments when Donnie tells them that they need to sleep in order to dream.

Pohlad is a director attentive to the means of musical creation. The centrepiece of Love & Mercy was its reconstruction of a Pet Sounds session in which Wilson corralled numerous musicians into the studio to realise his eccentric visions; in Dreamin’ Wild, much of the runtime is handed over to songwriting, performing and recording, with most space given to ‘Baby’, a song that über-fan Ariel Pink covered and brought to a new generation.

Affleck is superb as a rumpled, dazed figure calculating whether it’s worth dreaming again, and as a whole, the performances and direction result in a moving and psychologically layered paean to familial love.

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