The End of Dreams

Dreamin’ Wild (2023; in theaters) is based on the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson and their 1970s record that found new life in the 2000s. But it feels like an bittersweet encomium for a time-outside-of-time and a place of its own. In 1979, Donnie and Joe recorded an album called Dreamin’ Wild in a home-made studio on their parents’ farm in Fruitland, Washington, north-west of Spokane. (Scenes were filmed in both Fruitland and Spokane, as well as a shot or two in Seattle). The album didn’t really go anywhere, and both Donnie and Joe went on with their lives, Joe on his father’s farm, and Donnie as a recording studio owner with his wife, Nancy. Around 2010, someone discovered the record in a shop in Montana, and (at least, according to the movie) it started getting passed around among collectors. The owner of Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records, Matt Sullivan, found the brothers in Fruitland and offered to remaster and re-release the record, which lead to opportunities to play live shows and possibly record another album.

Early in the movie, Donnie (Casey Affleck) lies down next to his son, who is having trouble going to sleep. His son says, “I don’t want to go to sleep. I don’t like to dream.” Donnie says, “You don’t like the bad dreams. But you have to dream. You have to dream.” That is one bracket for the theme of the film: You have to dream. The other comes when we realize that while Donnie hasn’t given up his dream of playing and recording his own music, he is constantly dragged down by the feeling that it might be too late. In the thirty years since he and his brother made one largely ignored album, the realities of age and time have dulled his dream. He is hesitant and skeptical when his brother (Walton Goggins) calls to tell him that someone wants to re-release the album. Even when he meets Matt (Chris Messina), we can tell that he doesn’t want to allow hope back in. It’s been too long and he’s been disappointed too many times.

Whether one is a musician or not, it is easy to sympathize with unfulfilled desires and the passing of time that makes at least some of them impossible, or at least very unrealistic. But more than simply the ache of things left unaccomplished, Donnie is caught between his continued desire to have his songs be heard, and guilt and shame for having pursued that dream at the expense of much of his father’s farm. But Donnie, Sr. (Beau Bridges) has not held it against his son. The tipping point of the movie comes when he is finally able to break the dam holding back his pent-up guilt before his father, who says, “I’ve gotta go check on this load I’m taking to Wenatchee in the morning. You go talk to your brother.” (Any reference to Wenatchee in a movie is significant to me!) Donnie is able to close the gap that has opened up between his brother and him, ever since the producer wanted Donnie as a solo act when he was a child.

This film was a surprise to me, full of meditation on vocation, family, sacrifice, with multiple references to the family’s Christian faith. Joe realizes that, even apart from his youthful, musical excitement with his brother, that his vocation is different. Donnie’s vocation is different from his father’s, and his father recognizes that. The rediscovery of the album, and the possibility of recovering long-buried dreams does not do what either Donnie or Joe are hoping for, and yet it allows for scabbed-over wounds to be brought into the air and actually healed.

The movie ends somewhat abruptly with the real Donnie, Joe, and Nancy singing a new song in their brother’s bar, and the family gathered to watch. We do not get the Hollywood form of “satisfaction,” where Donnie would go on to headline tours and gather the fame for which he was looking when he was 16. So while it may be unsatisfying cinematically, it is realistic (as is the whole movie, following closely the actual New York Times article on which it is based). This, the movie tells us, is sometimes how it goes with childhood dreams. But maybe there are some things more important than accomplishing fully what we wished would have happened: the brotherhood that made the music possible in the first place; the love and gratitude that come from belonging to a family that genuinely loves and cares for each other; the fundamental ties to a particular place in the world. All this is here, and Affleck, Bridges, and Goggins, especially, deepen this film into something rare and profound.