Saturday, July 13, 2024

“DREAMIN’ WILD”

THE STORY – Brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson find newfound musical success after their 1979 debut album “Dreamin’ Wild” is rediscovered three decades later.

THE CAST – Casey Affleck, Noah Jupe, Zooey Deschanel, Walton Goggins, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chris Messina & Beau Bridges

THE TEAM – Bill Pohlad (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes


Eight years ago, writer/director Bill Pohlad struck gold with his film “Love & Mercy,” a music biopic that avoided all the usual cliches and trappings of the genre and explored the anxieties and traumas of being a talented teen musician who struggles to function as an adult. Now, with his first film since then, Pohlad adopts the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” attempting to recapture lightning in a bottle with yet another musician biopic that explores the anxieties and traumas of being a talented teen musician who struggles to translate that talent to function as an adult. Like “Love & Mercy,” the film is well-acted. And like “Love & Mercy,” the film avoids the tedious musician biopic cliches and structure parodied famously in “Walk Hard.” Unfortunately, that is where the similarities end. While earnest and good-natured, “Dreamin’ Wild” simply isn’t all that interesting to justify its existence.

“Dreamin’ Wild” tells the true story of musical brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson (played by Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins, respectively), rural farm boys in Washington state who recorded and self-produced their own record as 17-year-olds in the 1970s, expecting that their undeniable talent would catapult them to superstardom. It didn’t. Donnie set out unsuccessfully as a solo act, and Joe returned to work on the farm. Then, in 2011, the internet rediscovered the duo’s record and brought unexpected celebrity into their established lives. Suddenly, record producers (Chris Messina) and journalists come knocking, and Donnie and Joe are forced to reckon with what it means to be confronted with late-in-life success so long after having given up on their dreams.

It’s hard not to be affected by the story of a musical genius, unappreciated in their time, learning they have a huge following decades later. There is a reason the Academy Award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” was such a hit. The problem is that the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson is not engaging enough to support an entire film. Donnie and Joe recorded a record. It didn’t work out. Years later, they were rediscovered by sheer luck, and reissues of the album sold well. They performed a concert together. That’s the story in a nutshell.

The problem is that the film must stretch its runtime to nearly two hours. And so, it keeps manufacturing conflict where there seemingly is none. To its credit, the film avoids the “Walk Hard” conflict tropes like the comically unsupportive father. Donnie and Joe’s father (played by Beau Bridges) could not have been more supportive. And the underlying bit of internal conflict, the question of how one reacts to becoming successful for something that no longer represents who they are as a person, is an interesting one. But the film needs more than that as it tees up other bits of drama that it never explores. There’s tension between Donnie and his wife, Nancy (played by Zooey Deschanel), who is also a musician and seems jealous that Donnie is finding success for the music he created without her. This is brought up in one scene and seemingly almost immediately unresolved. Also, Deschanel is given nothing to do here, which amounts to a thankless role. Joe apparently made some bad decisions. We get glimpses of his past as we see he seemingly fell for a woman who overdosed, but that plot element is barely fleshed out. And ultimately, when the film ends, the whole thing feels anticlimactic. Nothing about how the film ends makes a compelling argument for why this story needed to be 2-hours instead of reading an interesting article.

Some conflicts feel more authentic and fleshed out. Joe’s knowledge that he was never as talented as Donnie and Donnie dealing with his father’s financial sacrifices to support his failed musical career are mainly engaging due to the performances. Bridges, Goggins, and especially Affleck deliver. All three are giving world-weary performances as men who feel disappointed by the directions life took them. We’ve seen all three deliver these sorts of performances before, but that doesn’t make their work any less impressive. They bring weight and authenticity to proceedings that singlehandedly elevate the movie.

Whereas “Love & Mercy” utilized dynamic and experimental filmmaking techniques to merge the sounds of The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson’s auditory hallucinations and artfully leaped between dual timelines, most of what is on display here from Pohland feels pedestrian by comparison. Although often well-lit, the camera work and shot composition feel uninspired. Some scenes feel like there wasn’t enough coverage, as indicated by some questionable choices regarding when and how cutaways should be used during some dialogue scenes. The flashbacks often feel cheesy, with one brief flashback to a traumatic moment in Donnie’s past feeling mainly amateur in its execution, as does a corny romantic courtship flashback montage.

On the other hand, there are a few interesting filmmaking choices on display. A 10-minute sequence in the middle of the film essentially recreates how a documentary about the brothers might have looked but staged with the film’s cast. One wonders if Pohler started making a documentary and then decided to recreate a portion of that shot for shot and stuck it in the middle of the film to reveal background information about the brothers. And during a crucial performance scene, Pohler plays with some of the same interesting sonic distortions he explored in “Love & Mercy” to illustrate Donnie’s declining mental state. But these flashes are few and far between. Mostly we’re treated to a simple retelling of a not especially gripping true story that happens to be boosted by a handful of strong performances.

Pohlad deserves praise for tackling a lesser-known musician and not following all the tropes of major musician biopics. But in choosing these particular lesser-known musicians, he ended up with a story that didn’t have enough on its own to offer for a feature film and was stuck spinning its wheels to create enough drama to justify its runtime. “Dreamin’ Wild” is not a bad film per se, but compared to “Love & Mercy,” it can’t help but feel inferior. It’s an admirable acting showcase, and the film’s ultimate emotional resolutions between Affleck, Bridges, and Goggins are touching. But mostly, the film is forgettable. Unlike the real-life music at the film’s center, this isn’t something people will discuss and appreciate decades from now.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Strong performances from Affleck, Goggins, Bridges, and Jupe. Mercifully avoids the music biopic cliches parodied in films like "Walk Hard."

THE BAD - There's just not enough of an exciting story here to justify a feature film. It feels like a magazine article stretched into a feature film when it didn't need to be. Pedestrian filmmaking doesn't elevate it.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 5/10

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Will Mavity
Will Mavityhttps://nextbestpicture.com
Loves Awards Season, analyzing stats & conducting interviews. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Strong performances from Affleck, Goggins, Bridges, and Jupe. Mercifully avoids the music biopic cliches parodied in films like "Walk Hard."<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>There's just not enough of an exciting story here to justify a feature film. It feels like a magazine article stretched into a feature film when it didn't need to be. Pedestrian filmmaking doesn't elevate it.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>5/10<br><br>"DREAMIN' WILD"