Producers: Bill Pohlad, Kim Roth, Christa Workman, Jim Burke, Steven Snyder, Viviana Vezzani, Karl Spoerri and Tobias Gutzwiller   Director: Bill Pohlad   Screenplay: Bill Pohlad   Cast: Casey Affleck, Walton Goggins, Noah Jupe, Jack Dylan Grazer, Beau Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Messina, Barbara Deering, Doug Dawson, Elizabeth O’Brien, Carson Verity and Amandaree Fox   Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Grade: B+

It’s been eight years since Bill Pohlad directed “Love & Mercy,” the excellent film about Brian Wilson that eschewed the usual dully chronological template of musical biopics in favor of an imaginative two-act structure, the first portraying the Beach Boy in his most creative phase, just as his mental troubles were manifesting themselves and the second during his later-in-life dependence on drugs and the shifty doctor who prescribed them.  Pohlad’s long-delayed follow-up, another true-life musical tale, takes a similar approach, though instead of simply demarcating two time periods in its subject’s career, it jumps back and forth between them, sometimes allowing them to dreamily overlap.  It’s also about far less famous people.  You might describe it as the B-side of Pohlad’s earlier film, so long as that doesn’t carry a note of inferiority; this movie is equally remarkable.

Pohland’s screenplay is based on Steven Kurutz’s 2019 article “Fruitland,” a piece on the Emerson brothers, Donnie and Joe, whom he’d written about earlier for the New York Times (you can find the text at https://creativenonfiction.org/writing/fruitland/).  The retake allowed Kurutz to expand not just on the brothers but on their family and Fruitland, Washington, the place from which they came; and Pohlad takes advantage of the richness of the new material.

Both Donnie and Joe are embodied in two first-rate performances.  Donnie is played as the self-taught seventeen-year old musical wunderkind behind the titular LP, self-released in 1979 to complete indifference, by Noah Jupe, and as the older Donnie who was rediscovered some thirty years later by Casey Affleck.  Jack Dylan Grazer plays his younger brother Joe, who accompanied him on drums on the album (sometimes not keeping up); the older Joe is played by Walton Goggins.  And though Affleck and Goggins will win the lion’s share of attention, all four are superb.

So too is Beau Bridges, relegated in recent years to mediocre movies, who springs back with a masterfully understated turn as Don Sr., Donnie and Joe’s father, a Washington State farmer whose support for Donnie’s musical hopes is so complete that ultimately he sacrifices the vast majority of his land, used for logging, to raise the money his son needs to pursue a solo career—ultimately disappointing—after the failure of “Dreamin’ Wild.”  And he does so not in the hope of financial return, but simply out of an old-fashioned sense of what a father ought to do for his children.  (Bridges is ably supported, it should be noted, by Barbara Deering as Don’s wife Salina—a smaller role, but a telling one.)

The crux of the story is how after decades of being ignored, “Dreamin’ Wild” is rediscovered and circulated by collectors of obscure self-released vinyl albums, gaining devoted fans in the process—including Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina), co-founder of Light in the Attic Records, dedicated to finding and reissuing such forgotten gems.  (Sullivan was also instrumental in reviving the music of Rodriguez, as recounted in the 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man”—which would be a perfect partner for this film on a double bill.)  He approaches the Emersons to secure permission to reissue the disc, which leads to a modest amount of unexpected celebrity for Donnie and Joe as a duo, including invitations to perform live.

That sets up the dramatic conflict at the center of the film, because while Joe has remained on the farm in Fruitland, working the land with his father, Donnie has doggedly continued trying to make it in the music game, continuing to write songs that he performs in small venues with his wife (Zooey Deschanel) while trying to make a go of running a recording studio.  He’s conflicted about going back to his seventeen-year old persona and teaming with his brother, who’s as much an amateur as he was as a boy, but whom he doesn’t want to hurt.  Joe, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with Donnie’s misgivings, while Don Sr. watches what’s happening with the same supportive but realistic attitude he’s always maintained toward the boys.

Pohlad approaches the Emersons’ story as a tale of the American dream deferred, but always with respect for the family dynamic behind it and the environment that acted as a crucible for such spontaneous creativity.  He opts for restraint and subtlety, drawing from his cast performances in that vein; Affleck, Goggins and Bridges respond to exceptional effect in that mode, but Jupe and Grazer aren’t far behind, though their youthful exuberance can’t, of course, reflect the tinge of ruefulness felt by the older versions of themselves.  All the members of the supporting cast contribute to the impression of innocence the film conveys—Messina is an open-hearted as he was cynical in “Air”—and even the look of the picture—with production design by Jona Tochet, costumes by Dakota Keller and cinematography by Arnaud Potier—strives for simplicity rather than affectation.  Annette Davey’s editing has similar virtues even as the chronological splits multiply and at times even overlap, with characters appearing alongside their older or younger selves.  The film makes special demands on the aural side, of course, and both the composers (Donnie, of course, and Leopold Ross) and the sound team headed by Mike Minkler and Ryan Billia respond accordingly.                 

The close of the film can act as final evidence of Pohland’s beautifully understated take on what might have been a rah-rah celebration of long-awaited success.  Kurutz’s “Fruitland” ends with a coda about a trip New York City that Pohland might have employed for a triumphalist finale.  Instead he opts for a smaller, more family-oriented one that blends the “real” with the “recreated.”  It makes for a moving end to a film that uplifts without smoothing out the story’s rough edges, like “Love & Money” one of the most imaginative and affecting musical biopics in recent memory.