It may have been music critic Robert Christgau who once observed that the hardest works to write about are the ones that earn a B+, or are just on the cusp of A-. Mind you, that might have been said by Roger Ebert or a critic for The Hollywood Reporter or any reviewer since the beginning of time. The point is, it’s the imperceptible flaws that curb enthusiasm which are almost as impossible to define as whatever makes something extraordinary. What is the ineffable deficit between very good and great?
In a sense, Dreamin’ Wild is about that margin of error. Based on a true story recounted in a work of journalism called Fruitland by Steven Kurutz, it’s a tale of two musician brothers, Don and Joe Emerson (Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins, respectively). In the early 1980s as teenagers, the boys made an album, Dreamin’ Wild, that — thanks to Don’s prodigious natural musical talent and Joe’s lesser contribution of enthusiastic if not always in-time drumming — turned out far better than anyone would expect from kids living in the sticks and working in a home studio way before that was feasible for most, let alone cool.
The Bottom Line
A tale of near-fame that nearly nails it.
When the album gets rediscovered and re-released on vinyl 30 years later, it’s raved about on blogs and early incarnations of social media, and earns an 8 out of 10 in a review at online music mag Pitchfork. That’s a really good score, they have to explain to their father Don Sr. (Beau Bridges), their biggest fan. Don Sr. may be a simple farmer, but he can see that an 8 out of 10 is not as good as a 10 out of 10.
The movie is itself sort of a B+, or a 7 or 8 out of 10. There are some wonderful riffs here, and a soulful generosity extended toward the kind of folk that never get their due in so many ways, all wrapped around the compelling but seldom explored conceit of a success that happens at the wrong time. But just when the film seems poised to deliver something scorching in its cold wisdom, the whole turreted sand castle gets washed away by a wave of sentimentality and an engulfing break, all closure and hugs.
Writer-director Bill Pohlad is better known for his work as a producer on many acclaimed recent features, including 12 Years a Slave, Wild, Tree of Life and A Monster Calls. (Lets quietly draw a veil over the last one he took a producer credit for, the Sean Penn-directed shocker The Last Face.) This is Pohlad’s third directorial effort, and it’s fascinating how much it echoes his last, Love & Mercy, an underrated bio-portrait of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson made back in 2014. In that film, Pohlad intercut between scenes showing a young Wilson played by Paul Dano producing his masterpiece, Pet Sounds, and a later timeline about the mature Wilson (John Cusack) bedeviled by mental health issues and controlled by a sinister manager.
Like Love & Mercy, this film alternates between timelines: one set in 2011 just when Dreamin’ Wild gets rediscovered and one set back in the day when younger Emerson brother Donnie (Noah Jupe, lip syncing superbly to Don Emerson’s original recordings) discovered in himself an unceasing musical fecundity, prompting him to write sometimes two or three songs a day.
Luckily, young Donnie’s deeply loving father Don Sr. was willing to do anything he could to nurture his kid’s talent. Yes, that’s “kid” singular, because while Donnie’s older brother Joe (Jack Dylan Grazer) shows dedication and tries his best to play the drums and be a part of the band, he doesn’t have talent in the same degree and he knew that back in the 1980s. That’s why when a chance came around for Donnie to make a record with a label as a solo act, Joe quietly stepped out of the spotlight and pursued a life closer to home, working on the farm just yards from the house he grew up in as Don Sr. mortgages piece after piece of the family’s land to try and help Donnie fulfill his promise.
However, Donnie’s solo career doesn’t quite turn out the way he expected, even though he sticks at it doggedly for years. When we meet him as an adult, he’s a husband to Nancy (Zooey Deschanel, underused) and a father to two kids. They run a small recording studio in Spokane and gig at weddings (she’s the drummer), playing covers between burbling congratulations to the bride groom. When Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina) contacts the family to try and reissue their long forgotten album on his label Light in the Attic — which specializes in music some might describe as outsider work by acts like The Shaggs and The Free Design — it’s almost too much for Don (Jr.), who doesn’t feel that same connection to the material he made years ago. A chance comes to perform live, but who will play drums — Joe, who is rusty and never was that great, or Nancy, who can stick to the beat and deserves the shot as much as Don?
As in Love & Mercy, Pohlad flaunts a real feel for the nitty gritty of music making, and it’s a joy to see a film that doesn’t dumb down the slow, grinding process of playing, or gloss over the hours that have to go into practice to make a musician. Joe doesn’t really want to put the time in, and no one at the showcase is likely to complain. But his brother will know, and that all leads up to an explosive, finely executed aftershow scene where Affleck gets to let rip at last after a performance that’s been mostly uncomfortable smiles and brooding silences. In a way, it’s more of the same of what he was serving in Manchester by the Sea; to cast him as Don Emerson Jr., a man with innate talent but problematic social skills, is almost amusingly on the nose, but he really is very good here. Goggins, a performer who never gets the recognition he deserves, holds his own beautifully as a man making the best of things despite all his disappointments and losses. The younger actors as the brothers match the counterparts note for note.
Funnily enough, while the echoes of Love & Mercy are obvious, while watching this I was reminded of an even better film that played here in Venice, The Banshees of Inisherin. That’s also a story about niceness vs. talent, what we sacrifice to make time to make art that might last and the frustration we feel for people who get in the way of that. The films make for a fascinating comparison side by side, but it’s not a simple case of history repeating itself first as tragedy in Inisherin (which is mostly hilarious) and then as comedy in Dreamin’; although it does have a classic happy ending, the latter film features few moments to laugh.