Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The dream finally hits the silver screen for Don Emerson and his family

Surreal only begins to describe the experience of watching your life story unfold on the big screen. Very few will witness their lives documented in celluloid in perpetuity. But singer-songwriter Don Emerson knows what it’s like to witness himself in a larger than life manner.

Emerson and his family caught a private screening of “Dreamin’ Wild,” the biopic about a potential rising star from Fruitland, who failed to launch in 1977.

More than a month has passed since the Emerson family saw “Dreamin’ Wild” at the Magic Lantern but the Spokane musician is still emotional when speaking about the experience.

Emerson’s voice cracks and he pauses while deliberately choosing words to describe what it was like finally seeing writer-director Bill Pohlad’s film, which was filmed in Spokane late last year.

“It was amazing,” Emerson said. “I cried for about an hour and a half.”

“Dreamin’ Wild,” which runs for an hour and 50 minutes, tells the unusual and fascinating story of Emerson and his brother, Joe, who crafted an album dubbed “Dreamin’ Wild,” financed by their father, Don Sr., during the late ’70s.

The audacious project, a collection of catchy pop-rock songs crafted by teenagers clad in Elvis-esque jumpsuits for the album cover, failed to find an audience during the days of the gas crisis and when punk rock was fresh and threatening.

Don Emerson, portrayed by Academy Award winner Casey Affleck, remained dedicated to life as a singer-songwriter-producer. Emerson made ends meet by touring Asia and Europe, playing weddings with his wife Nancy, played by Zooey Deschanel, and running a Spokane recording studio, Malta Records.

However, his drummer brother Joe, portrayed by Walton Goggins, left music behind to work on the family farm in Fruitland with their father.

A music blogger discovered a copy of the well-produced “Dreamin’ Wild” in a Spokane antique shop in 2008 and the under-the-radar project was re-released. However, Don Emerson, who moved on as a musician, had to come to terms with the surprising interest in an album 30 years after its release.

It’s easy to see why Hollywood would be interested in such a story. After reading the “Fruitland” article published by Steven Kurutz in the New York Times in 2012, Pohlad saw the potential for a film. Pohlad, who wrote and directed “Love & Mercy,” about Beach Boys’ icon Brian Wilson, handled the Emerson story with care while shooting “Dreamin’ Wild” in and around Spokane in 2021, Donnie Emerson said.

“Bill did an amazing job with the movie,” Emerson said. “Bill and I held on to each other after the movie and cried a lot together. It hit us both so hard emotionally. The same goes for my family.”

Emerson’s father, who is 91, his mother, Salina, 88, brother Joe, his sisters Maria and Rose, his wife Nancy, and children Avea and Chance caught the private showing.

Joe Emerson didn’t burst with emotion like his brother but the impact was visceral.

“It was pretty intense,” Joe Emerson said from his Fruitland home. “I was so impressed with the actors. They got who we are. I reacted like my dad, who doesn’t show a lot of emotion.”

The senior Emerson couldn’t have been prouder, according to his son.

“My father gave it two thumbs-up,” Don Emerson said. “I’m so glad he was pleased. But the part that really hit me was seeing myself on camera and on screen. The film will last forever. Twenty years from now my mom and my dad will be gone but I’ll be able to relive the film over and over again. I’ll be seeing myself and so will my kids and my grandchildren. I’m just so grateful to Bill and everyone involved with the film. It’s just so well done.”

Emerson is impressed with Affleck’s portrayal. “Watching Casey on screen was literally like looking at myself in the mirror,” Emerson said. “Casey was 90% who I was.”

Affleck absorbed the essence of Emerson courtesy of a surprise visit to his South Hill home.

“I didn’t know Casey was coming over,” Emerson said. “He put up a tent in my back yard. He’s all about spontaneity. He wants to see who you are and I respect that. Casey and I are a lot alike. We have similar personalities. We’re both intense and serious about our craft.”

Emerson was touched by watching the live feed of the red carpet before the Venice Film Festival screening last month.

“I watched the actors take the carpet,” Emerson said. “I saw the announcer talking to Zooey and Casey while my music was playing in the background. That was great.”

While the film does not yet have an official release date, Emerson said a number of studios are interested in “Dreamin’ Wild.” Emerson hopes a deal is finalized soon so “Dreamin’ Wild” hits screens later this year.

“That would be the perfect time since I believe this film could be a perfect holiday movie,” Emerson said. “It may not be a big blockbuster like ‘Maverick’ but it could be an iconic holiday film for years.”