Dreamin' Wild brings the Inland Northwest tale of the Emerson brothers' unlikely rock resurgence to the big screen, while Donnie and Nancy Emerson continue their musical journey

click to enlarge Dreamin' Wild brings the Inland Northwest tale of the Emerson brothers' unlikely rock resurgence to the big screen, while Donnie and Nancy Emerson continue their musical journey
Courtesty Roadside Attractions
Casey Affleck

Culturally, you can't get much farther from Hollywood than Fruitland, Wash. The rural community quietly rests roughly an hour-and-a-half drive northwest of Spokane, and there's no stardom glitz to be had for the 800 or so hardworking folks who live there.

And while it's not home to any Hollywood trappings, it's certainly home to a real life story that seems like a silver screen dream. And now... it is.

The new film Dreamin' Wild tells the dramatic true tale of Fruitland's most famous sons — Donnie and Joe Emerson. For those unfamiliar with their Inland Northwest lore, the siblings, with financial support from their logging dad, self-recorded an album on their farm when they were teens in the late 1970s. With Donnie as the driving force as the songwriter, guitarist, and keyboardist, and Joe holding it down on the drums, the album in question — Dreamin' Wild — was a wildly eclectic mix of rock, pop, soul, and funk that completely belied the duo's age, location, and musical exposure.

But nothing really came of the album. Donnie grew up and stayed active in music around Spokane, eventually partnering with his wife Nancy Sophia to make local music and opening a recording studio, while Joe stuck around working in Fruitland.

But after over 30 years in obscurity, everything changed when Matt Sullivan, co-founder of Seattle repress record label Light in the Attic, came across Dreamin' Wild and was floored by what he heard. He offered to rerelease the album in 2012, and it subsequently became a music nerd phenomenon — getting rave reviews from Pitchfork, garnering New York Times (and Inlander) features, and generally offering the Emerson brothers a second musical act. But it also created a lot of emotional turmoil for Donnie, who struggled with the unexpected resurgence of a creative project he'd viewed as a life-defining failure for decades.

That journey is captured now in cinematic form under the same name — Dreamin' Wild. The film — written and directed by Bill Pohlad (who directed the Gold Globe-nominated Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy) and starring Casey Affleck (Donnie), Walton Goggins (Joe), Beau Bridges (Don Sr.), Zooey Deschanel (Nancy), Noah Jupe (teenage Donnie) and Jack Dylan Glazer (teenage Joe) — gets a national release on Aug. 4, bringing the Emerson's Inland Northwest tale to the masses.

"It's a bit mind-boggling to say the least," Sullivan says. "Since Light in the Attic got involved, we always would almost jokingly say it's a made for the silver screen story. But the fact that it actually came to fruition is pretty remarkable."

But it was far from an easy journey. And the final chapters of Donnie Emerson's musical journey have yet to be written.

click to enlarge Dreamin' Wild brings the Inland Northwest tale of the Emerson brothers' unlikely rock resurgence to the big screen, while Donnie and Nancy Emerson continue their musical journey
Courtesty Roadside Attractions
Zooey Deschanel, Walton Goggins and Noah Jupe star in Dreamin' Wild.

FRUITLAND TO FRUITION

Dreamin' Wild stands in stark contrast to the current cinematic era of hyperstylized, often sugarcoated musical biopics (think: Bohemian Rhapsody, Elvis, Rocketman). It's not a movie about rock star glamour and frenetic fantasy sequences. The main thing Pohlad strives for is authenticity.

The production actually took place largely on the Emerson farm (with some Spokane scenes in there, too), and Donnie, Nancy and the rest of the family were involved with Pohlad, trying to get things right from the very beginning.

"We looked at the first script and made our changes to make it authentic. Because during COVID, it was really tough for Bill to come here and spend time," Nancy says. "I said, 'You want reality? We'll give you reality. Good, bad and ugly. ... We don't shy away from the real life of the drama, but it has to be real.'"

"I was touched that they filmed at the actual farm in Fruitland," Sullivan says. "The first time we met with Bill and the producers, that was one of the first questions I asked, hoping that would happen."

Donnie and Nancy are no pushovers when it comes to the grind of the entertainment industry, having been working musicians for decades, so they were practical about a film adaptation of the story. They decided to let Pohlad make the film because he's the producer, director and writer. They figured if the original studio, Focus Features, got cold feet, Pohlad's production studio wouldn't let the film die. Their instincts were rewarded when Focus pulled out during COVID, but Pohlad was undeterred by the setback.

"If you have a director who wrote this? That's his baby," Nancy says knowingly.

Having a music-based film adds layers of complications to a production (masters, publishing, etc.), but the Emersons were up to the challenge, even if negotiations got so overwhelming that sometimes they simply had to turn off their phones.

"People are like, 'This must be so fun for you!' And I just give them that look — like a deer in headlights," Nancy says. "I have fun when I go to Disneyland. That's not what this was. But it's beyond anything that most people will experience. The adrenaline is unbelievable. The high is unbelievable. It's surreal."

click to enlarge Dreamin' Wild brings the Inland Northwest tale of the Emerson brothers' unlikely rock resurgence to the big screen, while Donnie and Nancy Emerson continue their musical journey
Courtesty Roadside Attractions
Donnie Emerson, Bill Pohlad and Casey Affleck hang on set.

THE GENUINE ARTICLE

Beyond being shot at real-life locations, what rings the most true throughout Dreamin' Wild is the Emersons' familial bonds. It's the type of movie that generations can watch together and all enjoy. ("We are so grateful that it's PG," Nancy mentions three times while we're chatting.)

Sullivan says the love depicted on screen between the Emersons is exactly what he encountered on his first visit to Fruitland, marveling at how there were no tensions or angry regret in the family in spite of hardships and financial losses they had faced over the years.

"I'm 47 years old, and I've met a lot of people, especially doing this Light in the Attic job," Sullivan says. "And there's just no one like [the Emersons]. They're just the genuine article. They're just such a wonderful loving family."

That familial sense even led Pohlad to get emotional on stage after screenings of the film, which played at the Venice Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival.

"Bill got teary eyed on stage. I started to almost cry," Nancy says. "We're talking six years of getting to know each other. For Bill Pohlad to say, 'I've never met a family like this. This family is amazing. It changed my life.' Forever we'll have a brotherhood because we went through this together."

There's undeniably a strong undercurrent of the Emersons' faith that resonates throughout Dreamin' Wild. It's most certainly a strong Christian movie without being anything close to one of the modern pseudo-propagandistic Christian films made by a Christian studio that only appeals to Evangelical Christian audiences. Instead of a judgmental or fire-and-brimstone approach, it depicts the warmth of a family bonded around a belief in Jesus's love.

"I want everyone to be able to watch this and know that there is faith within this family," Nancy says. "I love all different types of movies. ... But I love movies, that as you're watching the movie, you become a Christian from watching the movie. It's got a taste of Christianity and true family love."

Even though the Emersons were heavily involved with the process, Dreamin' Wild doesn't sugarcoat things. To be quite frank, Affleck's portrayal of Donnie makes him look like a straight-up dick sometimes (like when he has a minor meltdown after a big Light in the Attic showcase at the Showbox in Seattle). And the subject himself is fine with that. Because it's real.

"I am kind of a complex character," Donnie admits. "I won't hide behind my idiosyncrasies. I won't do that. But that's why I was happy with what Casey did. I actually cried so much when I saw the first screening. It was like watching myself and analyzing who I am, you know?"

"I cried during a couple of things with Donnie. I could feel it through my bones," Nancy adds.

"Even though it's about music, it's really about a family going through things with their children, and what they put into their kids," Donnie continues. "It's about that struggle, that guilt, of maybe not living up to the expectations that you wanted it to."

ANOTHER CHANCE

The film offers a musical showcase for anyone still unfamiliar with the Dreamin' Wild album. Many of the album's songs have caught on even if people are unaware of the context. For example, loads of people use the tune "Baby" as their wedding song without knowing the song's atypical path into the musical consciousness.

"I think it's just the purity of it — the music — it's a genuine article," Sullivan says. "Once you know the context, it makes even more sense. The fact they knew absolutely nothing about the traditions or music industry when they were doing this... you couldn't really recreate it even if you tried. So there's just such a genuine quality to it that just magically comes together. It's like lightning in a bottle."

But Donnie also worked on new music for the movie. Without spoiling too much, the film ends with a fairly magical cinematic moment involving a performance of the new tune "When A Dream is Beautiful." To record the song, one which Sullivan calls "epic" and "breathtaking," Donnie and Nancy traveled to Nashville's famed RCA Studio A (where Elvis Presely and Dolly Parton have laid down tracks) with mega-producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, the A Star is Born soundtrack, etc.).

"If you listen to the lyrics, it's for everybody's second chances. Take another chance," Nancy says. "And our son's name is Chance. So every time Donnie hears that part of the song, he gets kind of choked up, I get choked up. Take another chance. And that's for everybody. Every single person that's going to see this movie and hear that song, we want that song to hit them authentically."

ANOTHER CHAPTER

click to enlarge Dreamin' Wild brings the Inland Northwest tale of the Emerson brothers' unlikely rock resurgence to the big screen, while Donnie and Nancy Emerson continue their musical journey
Courtesy photo
Donnie and Nancy Emerson at the premiere of Dreamin' Wild.|

And while many would be totally content after seeing their lives portrayed on the big screen, Donnie and Nancy just see the film as the next stepping stone for their joint career. They've never slowed down making melodies — either under the monikers Donnie Emerson & Dreamin' Wild or Donnie Emerson with Nancy Sophia.

"Well I'm trying to be optimistic," Donnie says. "Nancy and I have never stopped playing music. And so I want to see the future come out of the film. It's going to recognize all of our music; not just from the past, but the stuff that we're doing now and stuff we've done for the film."

The pair also find themselves in a strange cultural moment for the release of a major motion picture. With the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America on strike currently, the typical stars who'd be out promoting their new films aren't able to in the name of union solidarity. (Nancy stresses that her "heart and prayers go out to" those striking and that she believes they're fighting the good fight against the studios' desires to overuse artificial intelligence instead of paying people.) The situation weirdly creates an opportunity for the Emersons, who don't write or act, to get their voices and faces out there to promote Dreamin' Wild.

"Even right now with the film going through distribution, we could sit back. I could say, 'Well, you know, I'm not going to do anything. I'm just gonna sit back and ride the wave. I've got so much music in the film, I don't have to worry about anything. When it goes to streaming, I'm all good,'" Donnie says. "But that's not my makeup. My makeup is to prove a point to all these other young artists out there and to myself, that the journey doesn't end, it's all about moving forward."

Though Donnie and Nancy are in talks with new agents and managers and are planning to go on tour soon, they're not overlooking how special it is that Dreamin' Wild is now forever captured on celluloid. Being able to share it with Donnie's parents (now 92 and 89 years old) and their two kids (22 and 20), serves as another chapter in the Emersons' special family story. Much like when Donnie and Joe were jamming as teenagers, it's a moment that won't soon be forgotten.

"For the younger artists, I want them to appreciate their moments of playing together. I really, really do," Donnie says. "They're always looking for that golden ring. I've chased it and chased it. And they need to appreciate those moments of playing with each other. Because as soon as they get done playing, it's done. Those moments will be gone."

Well... unless someone makes a movie about them. ♦

Dreamin' Wild arrives in theaters on Aug. 4. "When a Dream is Beautiful" and other music from the film will be available when Light in the Attic releases the soundtrack on the same day, with vinyl and an online store (donnieandjoe.com) coming later this year.

Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...

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