Dreamin' Wild review: "Musical biopic drifts just when you'd expect it to sing"

Dreamin' Wild
(Image: © Courtesy of Venice Film Festival)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

A classy ensemble in a touching story, albeit one that drifts in the third act, just when you’d expect it to sing.

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How do you cope with belated success, 30 years on from shattered dreams? That’s the question posed by Bill Pohlad’s music bio Dreamin’ Wild. At its heart are two real-life brothers, Donnie and Joe Emerson, from Fruitland, Washington, who recorded an album when they were teens. It went nowhere, only for fans to rediscover the work three decades later. That’s the moment that Pohlad’s film starts, as well-meaning music executive Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina) tracks down Donnie (Casey Affleck) and his sibling Joe (Walton Goggins), who still works on the 1,600-acre farm run by their beloved father (Beau Bridges). 

Donnie has never given up his dreams of making music, still harbouring hopes with his musician wife Nancy (Zoey Deschanel) still harbours hopes of touring venues. When Matt arrives with talk of re-releasing the old album, it opens up old wounds for Donnie, which Pohlad gradually sprinkles through the film. But with a groundswell of internet fandom for ‘Dreamin’ Wild’, the album they rehearsed all those years ago in a specially built room on their father’s farm, his initial reluctance gives way when a first royalty check comes in. Before long there’s talk of a live performance at the record label’s anniversary show in Seattle. 

While Donnie is clearly the more musically talented of the brothers — Joe plays drums, Donnie writes the song and is a multi-instrumentalist — he’s also the more volatile. He’s got “a lot going on in his head”, Joe tells Steven Kurutz, the New York Times reporter who comes to visit the family and write up their story (the script is based on Kurutz’s article ‘Fruitland’) as their popularity grows. Gradually, we discover that Donnie is carrying guilt and shame from years ago, when his father remortgaged the property to aid his son’s musical career, leaving the family in debt. 

Pohlad, who made 2014’s excellent Brian Wilson/Beach Boys tale Love & Mercy, clearly has an ear for music stories,and the trouble success and failure can bring. But Dreamin’ Wild doesn’t quite hold its nerve. Flashbacks to the brothers’ youth (with Noah Jupe as Donnie and Jack Dylan Grazer as Joe) paint a picture of a loving family, encouraging dad and all. But the film never really explores what happened to Donnie, after a Los Angeles record producer suggests he goes solo. Deschanel is also left with a next-to-nothing role as the supportive wife. 

While Jupe and Grazer are eminently watchable, the past scenes are somewhat intrusive, impinging on the main narrative. Even the Emerson story itself doesn’t feel entirely unique (the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man follows a similar trajectory, but in a more compelling way). But Affleck and Goggins excel as Donnie and Joe, the latter managing his pain in an entirely different way from his brother. Affleck especially digs deep for a couple of powerful scenes towards the end, even if the film doesn’t quite reach the desired crescendo you’d hope for. 

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Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.