‘Dreamin’ Wild’ Review: Casey Affleck Plays a Tortured Artist in Gentle but Weary Musical Biopic

“Love & Mercy” director Bill Pohlad’s latest can’t find its rhythm despite an intriguing true story

Dreamin Wild
Roadside Attractions

The true story of the late-blooming musical duo, Emerson Brothers, at the heart of Bill Pohlad’s elegiac yet bizarrely dull “Dreamin’ Wild” goes a bit like that of Rodriguez, the Michigan-based musician followed in the Oscar-winning documentary, “Searching for Sugarman.”

Growing up amid modest means at their hardworking family’s Washington State farm, Donnie and Joe Emerson were two teenagers in love with making music. A real talent often charges family-wide operations of this sort—in the Emerson clan that was Donnie, a gifted songwriter on his guitar and an expressive soloist to boot, with boundless aspirations for the future of his still young life.

On the drums was his older sibling Joe, for whom music had never been an all-or-nothing pursuit. Through much sacrifice and support from their caring family the two released their only record, “Dreamin’ Wild,” in the late ’70s, a soulful, genuinely beautiful album doomed with the dead-end, clearance-bin fate of countless great yet unknown artistic crops: it just couldn’t find an audience.

Based on a 2012 New York Times article by reporter Steven Kurutz, Pohlad’s film exists because that destiny was altered when Pitchfork rediscovered the record a decade ago, deeming it “a godlike symphony to teenhood,” riffing on a Brian Wilson phrase.

It’s a high point of “Dreamin’ Wild” when the 40-something Donnie, played by a haunting and mournful Casey Affleck (one of American cinema’s favorite tormented souls), hears this quote. To have his music compared to anything that has to do with his musical hero? The sweet disbelief is written all over the punch-drunk face of Affleck, whose authentically melancholic performance flows through this occasionally out-of-tune film, with notes high and low.

The same moment is also thematically meaningful for writer-director Pohlad, the name behind the elegantly heady Brian Wilson biopic, “Love & Mercy.” Partly due to a possible lack of healthy resources (sadly, “Dreamin’ Wild” continuously feels budget-conscious in visible ways) and curiously fruitless creative choices like unpolished flashbacks and an insistence on having the past and present converse with one another, “Dreamin’ Wild” never quite approaches the lingering emotional peaks of “Love & Mercy,” leaning heavily on the cliched “tortured artist” beats of the story.

In that regard, Affleck’s Llewyn Davis-adjacent character’s displeased outbursts become tiresome—not because of Affleck’s performance (he is reliably wondrous), but because of a repetitive script. It doesn’t help that most of the other crucial characters of the story feel sidelined. Among them are Donnie’s wife Nancy (a nonetheless committed Zooey Deschanel)—a pillar of strength and a good musician in her own right, singing at weddings and bars and running a small studio alongside Donnie—the brothers’ saintly dad Don Sr. (Beau Bridges) and the rest of the extended family members who aren’t given much to do other than stand or sit around a performing Donnie and Joe, dreamily smiling with pride.

Thankfully, Joe gets his earnest due from the otherwise dissonant script. Played by Jack Dylan Grazer and the great Walton Goggins at different ages, he somehow proves to be the more interesting brother to get to know throughout “Dreamin’ Wild,” like the lesser played B-side of a record. Joe is someone who discovered at a young age that he didn’t have what it takes to break out and accepted it with grace and modesty.

On their album cover he looks inseparable from his brother Donnie, like two heads that sprouted from the same body. Throughout “Dreamin’ Wild,” there is a humbling pleasure in following Goggins (and Grazer) as Joe generously separates himself from that body in order not to drag it down, channeling his support towards his sometimes receptive, sometimes unfairly self-involved brother instead.

Playing the younger Donnie, the ever gifted Noah Jupe lends “Dreamin’ Wild” ample youthful energy and a blindingly captivating screen presence, proving after “Honey Boy” and “A Quiet Place” that he is among the most exciting young character actors around.

But despite all the talent on display navigating an authentically intriguing true tale, Pohlad’s joint never quite finds its rhythm. Often times this critic wanted to feel a sense of scale, of the real-world buzz around the Emersons, as well as the enthusiasm they receive when they finally make it to Seattle to play at their dream venue.

But a character named Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina), the head of an indie label with a mission to give unsung records like “Dreamin’ Wild” a second chance, ends up being our only link to that outside noise—like the Emersons (who don’t have internet on the farm), we just have to take his word for it. And when it comes to the Seattle performance itself, it’s a clumsily shot and cut one—we only see a few rows of enthusiasts while the film veers into a psychodrama through the annoyed and dissatisfied perfectionist Donnie’s messy headspace.

That miscalculated manner that often transposes “Dreamin’ Wild” into an overtly psychological zone works against the rest of the film’s gentle demeanor. Despite it all, the music is lovely—even if you don’t know anything about the Emersons, you’ll grasp straightaway why one would fall for their tender ballads, love-at-first-sight style. Though you can also just buy the record for that.