Success sometimes happens on its own timeline, and for brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson, it took nearly 30 years to materialize. The Emerson brothers are the subject of the movie “Dreamin’ Wild,” which premiered on Aug. 4 and stars Casey Affleck, Noah Jupe, and Zooey Deschanel. It recounts the true story of a pair of brothers who created a musical masterpiece, only for it to slip into obscurity until it was picked up by chance and given a second life.
The Emersons grew up in the rural town of Fruitland, WA, which has a population of just 751. The brothers became interested in music when their father purchased a tractor that came with a radio, and soon the boys started writing songs. “I would just contemplate being in those tracks, you know? I couldn’t get my head out of it,” Donnie told The Guardian in 2014 of that first radio. “I grew up with them on eight to 10 hours a day, going round and round that field.”
“We were kind of in a dream world,” Joe told the outlet. “Because we were isolated, we hadn’t been to any concerts, and so really, the radio was our inspiration and insight into music. We were really still very innocent.”
But everything changed when their father decided to spend approximately $100,000 on a home recording studio for his sons. Soon the boys, who were just teenagers at the time, recorded nearly 70 songs that turned into an album called “Dreamin’ Wild.” “We were untainted,” Donnie told The Guardian of those early recording sessions. “And back then I didn’t realize what I was doing, I was just doing. I just got in front of the mic and started singing. Joey and I would just play.”
In 1979, they pressed about 2,000 records and drove around the neighborhood with their mother, offering their project to neighbors. But their music never took off, and soon the family turned their focus to the family farm, which had been struggling financially due to their fathers’ investment in the studio. Donnie continued to play music and eventually became a full-time musician, while Joe stayed close to home to take on the responsibility of managing the farm.
In 2008, the Emerson brothers received an unexpected call from Jack Fleischer, a record collector who had discovered “Dreamin’ Wild” in a record store in Spokane. He had become obsessed with it and had begun sharing it with his circle. In 2012, musician Ariel Pink released a cover of the track “Baby,” and suddenly, “Dreamin’ Wild” was on its way to becoming a cult classic. The brothers finally rereleased their album that same year with Light in the Attic Records.
“I just want to cry,” Joe told The Guardian of hearing the music he recorded so long ago finally being recognized. “We did it with our hearts in the right place, we did it because we really wanted to share our music and we thought we had something special. And sure, we were naive about the music business, but I think it all happened in God’s own time: he felt it wasn’t right then, it’s more right now, because we’re able to handle some of this.”
Were Donnie and Joe Emerson Involved in Making “Dreamin’ Wild”?
Today, Donnie is married with two kids, and Deschanel plays his wife, Nancy, in the movie. Donnie and Nancy currently perform as a musical duo, and one of their songs, “When a Dream Is Beautiful,” is even featured in the film, per the Seattle Times. Meanwhile, Joe still lives on the Emersons’ significantly downsized family farm – which also was used as a film set for “Dreamin’ Wild,” per MovieWeb.
The brothers worked closely with “Dreamin’ Wild”‘s stars to bring their story to the screen, and apparently, Affleck won them over with a personal visit to the farm before filming even began. “Casey, before he decided to do the film, drove to Spokane and showed up at Donnie’s door,” the film’s director, Bill Pohlad, told MovieWeb. “He just took it upon himself. He camped in their backyard. The next day, Donnie and Nancy drove Casey to the farm. And that was it.”
“He came a few times and started to really turn himself into Donnie,” Nancy told the outlet of Affleck. “I could see Casey was starting to act like Donnie, starting to look like Donnie. He was opening our refrigerator and making the salad in our kitchen and saying, ‘Nancy, where are the tomatoes, the cucumbers?’ He started washing dishes one day.”
And fortunately, Joe and Donnie’s father, Don Sr. – who bought them the recording studio so long ago – is still alive to witness the movie’s release. “He’s ecstatic. He’s literally ecstatic,” Donnie told Aleteia of his father’s feelings about the movie. “He’s proud, extremely proud. He’s 92, you know. He’s soaking it up, which he should soak it up. In fact, we were just talking the day before yesterday basically saying, ‘Well Dad, we’ve got to get ready for next year, because this is what we should be doing out on the farm – once the film is out and about for a year.’ This is an opportunity. It gives him hope.”