The highly unlikely story of brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson—Fruitland, Washington's finest (only!) musical exports—has received the deeply sensitive cinematic treatment it deserves. Directed and written by Bill Pohlad, who also helmed the memorable Brian Wilson portrait Love & Mercy, Dreamin' Wild focuses on songwriting phenom Donnie Emerson's struggle with thwarted artistic goals, the belated fame earned for the 1979 private-press classic LP Dreamin' Wild, and the redemptive power of family. The latter includes the staunch emotional and financial backing of the world's most supportive father, farming/logging businessman Don Emerson Sr. This man took out a second mortgage on his farm and built a pro studio for his sons, on the condition that his boys create original songs. That the record initially flopped didn't diminish his belief in his boys at all. What a mensch.

In the film, Beau Bridges plays Don Sr. with aptly stern warmth while Casey Affleck roils with angst as Donnie, manifesting the musician's chronic frustration, even after experiencing the delayed notoriety that the Emerson bros' album's revival brings; he wants people to listen to his new music, but all anyone wants to hear is the stuff he recorded more than 30 years ago. Returning to his teenaged mindset as a musician who values progression in his art triggers turmoil within Donnie. The inclusion at film's end of Donnie and wife/musical partner Nancy's “When a Dream Is Beautiful” proves that his songwriting skills remain as moving and graceful as ever.

I met the brothers on their home turf to interview them as part of the liner notes-writing process for Light in the Attic's 2012 reissue of Dreamin' Wild. Spending time with these musicians in a farming town with no nightlife or music scene, you understand how miraculous it was that they conceived Dreamin' Wild. If I may quote my liners: “A platform for Donnie's unfiltered emotions and inspired by the mishmash of soul, funk, and rock tunes he heard on radio stations that aired in remote northeast Washington, Dreamin' Wild abounds with indelible melodies and hooks, torrid chops, and irrepressible blue-eyed soulfulness, while exuding the exposed-nerve sensitivity that is the special province of isolated, talented youths.”

Dreamin' Wild's most popular song, the luscious ballad “Baby” (over 31 million plays on Spotify), snagged Pohlad's attention. “'Baby' is one of those songs where you hear it for the first time and you think you've heard it your whole life,” Pohlad says in an interview conducted in a swanky Seattle hotel. “'Baby' is right up my alley as far as moody and ethereal [music goes]. That's what I listen to all the time. As I got deeper into the album, there's a lot of amazing stuff that you can't believe [was written by a] 15-year-old.”

Pohlad's friend, Green Book producer Jim Burke, pitched the Emerson family's story to Pohlad as a director, but he initially declined because it sounded too similar to the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, a film based on Sixto Rodriguez, another artist whose career was resurrected by Light in the Attic. Burke insisted that Pohlad read New York Times reporter Steven Kurutz's article about the Emersons and listen to the album. He did so and, after a visit to Spokane to spend time with Donnie and his family, Pohlad was hooked on the idea.

“What drew me to them and what the film is about, ultimately, is family, the people individually,” Pohlad says. “Authenticity, I suppose. They didn't behave in any way that you would write a movie about because you always have other things happening. But their story was unique, and I was drawn to, honestly, Don Sr. in particular, but Donnie, too. It was a sincerity that you don't find too often.

“Donnie drove us to the farm the first day that I met him and then on the drive back, Jim had fallen asleep in the back of the car; it was like a three-hour drive. We're sitting there in the dark, driving back to Spokane, and Donnie starts crying. He's so raw with all of his emotions. Obviously, at that point, I'm sold on the idea. So, I ended up writing it, as opposed to just directing it. Having that connection with Donnie was really important.”

What was Donnie crying about? “He was scarred. Maybe 'scarred' seems like not the right word. Because with Donnie, it's so pure, with the whole family. So it's not like that hard-edged kind of scarred, but he was obviously heartbroken by what had happened with his life. You could just feel it.”

While most moviegoers would classify Love & Mercy and Dreamin' Wild as “biopics,” Pohlad dislikes the term. “Biopic to me is like, you're going to tell the story, this biography of this person or these people, and you get locked into covering so many bases. With the Beach Boys, you can't do that. There are so many stories and so many chapters.

“For us, it was about painting a picture of a character through one or, in the case of Love & Mercy, two chapters, so you can get deeper. That's true of Dreamin' Wild. It helped us not to tell the whole story, but just as much of it as we needed. I only want to be telling a story that's intimate, that you can really feel the humanity of it. I'm not interested in seeing biopics where this happened and, oh, that happened. That doesn't allow for as much emotion as I would like.”

I wonder what was the biggest challenge Pohlad faced while shooting Dreamin' Wild. Spokane and Fruitland are not typical places where films get shot. For one thing, you can't get cell-phone reception in Fruitland. “The biggest challenge was trying to do a responsible and authentic job with these real people whom I grew to love and respect. You feel a real responsibility to get it right.

“There are always challenges when you're shooting way out in the middle of nowhere and dealing with different personalities; any film has that, both with the actors and the real people. But I don't even want to say it that way, because if you've met [the Emersons], you know that they're cool and amazing people, and warm. They weren't difficult in any way.

“Whenever you're making a movie about a real person, it can be fraught with emotion. Both Donnie and Nancy—but not so much Joe or the rest of the family, because they were very open-eyed; not innocent but they had that purity about them. So they weren't caught up in it. I'm sure it was more of a challenge for Donnie and dealing with some of the things that we dealt with in his life that were hard.”

Pohlad says that the script for his next film has an excellent first draft, but warns that it's too early to reveal details. “It's music-related, believe it or not,” he says with a laugh. “But the setting's very different [from Dreamin' Wild] and the characters couldn't be more different.” The writers and actors' strikes obviously have delayed work on this project, although Pohlad hopes for shooting to begin next spring.

Dreamin' Wild premiered at the Venice Film Festival and the Zurich Film Festival in September 2022. It opens in US theaters on August 4. Pohlad predicts that the movie “will open up a lot of doors [for the Emersons].”

Dreamin' Wild is at showing at Regal Meridian 16 and AMC Seattle 10.