Big City Dick: Richard Peterson's First Movie

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 01/25/04 06:10:02

"This movie might just make you a better person. Think about that."
5 stars (Awesome)

If you've ever spent a few days in any major American city, you've come across someone a little bit like Richard Peterson: a street corner musician who's a bit odd to look at, but is also supremely talented with a certain musical instrument. You may walk right by these folks, thinking they're not much more than society's castoffs; sad-sack weirdos who toil in disdainful anonymity. Well, in many cases you'd be dead wrong, and here's a fantastic new documentary that may change the way you look at (and treat) these big-city minstrels. This movie may actually make you a nicer and more charitable person; how many films can do that?

Richard Peterson is, at first (and probably second and third) look, a big, weird goofball. He has the voice of an Elmer Fudd and the body of a professional wrestler. He shuffles through the streets of Seattle with a limp and a trumpet and a cockeyed smirk; he loves his music and he loves his Sea Hunt. (That's an old Lloyd Bridges TV series, in case you were wondering.) Rich could be labeled a lot of different things: a doctor would call him an 'autistic savant', the cruel and ignorant would call him 'retarded', the harried and hurried would call him a distraction, the kind and patient would call him an exuberant man-child with an undying passion for the simple pleasures in life.

I call him a brilliantly fascinating subject for a documentary film, which is what makes Big City Dick such a supremely enjoyable little surprise, courtesy of three well-intentioned filmmakers and the fine folks at the Slamdance Film Festival.

Richard may indeed be one of society's overlooked oddballs, but after only 30 minutes of Big City Dick's running time, he quickly becomes someone you wouldn't mind spending an hour with. This mammoth man-child is far from a 'charity case', as it's plainly evident that the trio of directors and the many Seattle celebrities who know the guy... well, they love the big lug. Put aside your trepidation related to folks who may have a few mental challenges to overcome and you'll soon grow to appreciate Richard Peterson for what he is: a large-hearted and resoundingly talented musician, and one who undoubtedly would have had a successful music career were it not for the fact that people are generally a bit scared of people with Dick's sort of mental affliction.

Prior to taking in this great little movie, I was probably one of those people. But as the film unfolds, one not only gets introduced to one of America's most admirable cast-offs...but one also earns an affectionate and wholly effective lesson on how much the 'mentally deficient' have to offer the rest of us "normal folk".

Richard Peterson has recorded four albums throughout his career, has had his work showcased by the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, and has earned himself a big place in the heart of Seattle culture from stem to stern. Aside from his passion for the somewhat obscure old Lloyd Bridges series, Peterson also loves (and I mean loves) his hometown "personalities". A collection of local Seattle celebrities have, over the course of the past few decades, taken Richard Peterson in as one of life's truly 'special' people; a big beaming ball of musical enthusiasm who wants nothing more than to play his music, snag a few big bearhugs, and run off grinning with his eyes clamped shut (seemingly stealing a mental snapshot of his friends as something to keep and savor).

The sincere kindness and friendship that Peterson earns from the various Seattle personalities (mostly local radio and television talent) is not a put-on, and it sure isn't charity. What we see here is a case of kind-hearted and generous people who harbor no disrespect for the 'emotionally odd' and gradually begin to feel deep and sincere affection for their kooky (and frequently appearing) visitor.

In this respect, Big City Dick transcends documentary and offers a few subtle lessons on how rewarding it can be to open your heart to someone a bit more...askew...than is generally seen as normal. This is not even remotely an "Aww...look at the cute wittle wetard!" movie. If you want one of those, your Blockbuster is littered with stuff like I am Sam, The Other Sister and Radio. Big City Dick is the diametric opposite of those movies, and up until last week I didn't know there WAS a diametric opposite to those cackfests. So there's something else to be grateful for.

And by the time that Johnny Mathis (Richard's lifelong hero) shows up to share a few thoughts about how trepidation turned into friendship, you may actually believe that some superstars actually DO have a heart underneath all the glitz and glamour. And when the ultra-classy Jeff Bridges opens his home to the giddy Mr. Peterson, you'd be forgiven if you wanted to stop the film and give both men a big sloppy hug.

Scott Milan, Ken Harder and Todd Pottinger have done much more than craft a great little documentary about a great little man. They've given us a story that highlights the finest traits that humanity can possess: this is a movie about love, kindness, patience and pure hard-earned talent. After a visit with Richard Peterson, you'll be a little bit more decent to those "oddball freaks" who play music on the crowded city streets. And if one movie can make you just a little bit nicer to our society's fringe-dwellers, well then that's a movie that deserves high praise indeed. Plus it made me cry. And movies, like, never make me cry.

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