The Emersons are modest people. Running a farm, along with raising children to be decent, God-fearing and hard-working, is an all-day, all-week business; there isn’t much time for pretension. Even among the rustling pine trees in their little bit of Washington state, however, teenage boys may pick at guitars, noodle out a few songs that sound a bit like the Eagles, imagine rock stardom and dream of being discovered. The true story of the Emerson brothers would be like thousands of others, except for the fact that they were discovered. And that they were discovered, thanks to the internet, 30 years too late.
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Donnie Emerson had taught himself to play most instruments and was writing and arranging songs by the time he hit his middle teens; the family rated him a genius. His older brother Joe played just-about-adequate drums, which meant they had a band. The family got behind it; their dad built them a fancy studio in a barn; they even cut a record, posing for a cover photo in white flares and flowing shirts like down-home John Travoltas.
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It was that record, a predictable failure in 1979, that was picked up and made suddenly popular by vinyl nerds in the first decade of this millennium, something the Emersons knew nothing about until a record producer called, wanting to release a remastered version. They would play a gig in Seattle, maybe tour. The boys, now middle-aged men, would be stars at last.
It is easy to see why, over on the opposite coast, The New York Times picked up their story in 2012 – and why indie director Bill Pohlad, who had already made Love and Mercy about Brian Wilson, would read that story and want to turn it into a film. Pohlad spent years getting to know and evidently love the Emersons, whom he portrays as so loyal, cozy, caring and mutually supportive they make the Waltons look dysfunctional.
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In Dreamin’ Wild, Beau Bridges plays Don Emerson Sr., who continued to back Donnie’s bid for a musical career to the point where he was forced to sell off most of the farm; he would do it all again, he says, for the pleasure of hearing his son practicing down in the barn in the middle of the night. Barbara Deering plays materfamilias Salina. “You know your mother. She’s not going to let you leave without feeding you!” says Dad heartily when Donnie (Casey Affleck) comes over to hear about the new record offer. Drummer Joe (Walton Goggins) was a shy teenager who avoided parties and never got married, a story thread that is picked up and courteously dropped again within a minute. It wasn’t hard to keep him down on the farm. He’s in his element there. All he wants is the best thing for Donnie.
And then there is their homegrown genius Donnie-be-good, played to the hilt by Affleck. The camera swirls about him or follows him, hand-held, across the fields in the golden Pacific Northwest light; his face is explored as if it were a mountain range. Noah Jupe plays Donnie as a teenager. Sometimes they appear in the frame together: The kid looks at Donnie, you might say. Neither seems sure what to make of the other, which is presumably the point. How can you go back to playing songs you wrote when you were 15? It will be fun, says Joe, banging his drums half a beat behind the tempo as usual. But it isn’t fun if what you want – what you still want – is to be a rock star.
Affleck brings a load of baggage with him to any role these days, which effectively adds weight to Donnie’s evident melancholy. In a film so singularly lacking in dramatic conflict, Affleck’s sad face has to do a lot of work. Donnie may well be churning with inner turmoil as he tries to rehearse his teenage songs with his brother or be a good husband to Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), who is just as sweetly supportive as her in-laws, but he mostly keeps it to himself. When Donnie does unleash a single burst of frustrated rage, momentarily cracking the sweet crust of familial togetherness, it is Affleck’s inherent intensity that makes that moment feel dangerous.
Pohlad doesn’t pursue his story to the far side of the mountain. “Dreamin’ Wild” had its flare of fame. We can deduce what happened next from a scene in which the real Emerson brothers – along with Nancy, shown to be Donnie’s real musical soulmate – play their country rock to a home crowd of hard-working farmers in a local bar. There is a neon sign outside that bar, a beacon of country hospitality. The surrounding mountains rise majestically behind it. Pohlad’s film is really a story about what might be seen as the best of America, which is never going to be entirely true. It is also as sentimental about family as Vin Diesel when he hits his stride in Fast and Furious. But there is a good deal to be said for a modest life. In most ways, it is probably better than being a rock star.
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