How can a film about someone’s life be so somber yet so uplifting? No, it isn’t about someone diagnosed with a fatal disease which finally motivates that person to start enjoying life. It’s not about someone being wrongfully convicted of a crime and then exonerated decades later either. Although both aforementioned scenarios contain elements of joy and grief, the story at the center of a documentary by Scott Milam, Ken Harder, and Todd Pottinger makes an incredibly profound impression on you from frame one. Their film “Big City Dick: Richard Peterson’s First Movie” is about a musical genius named Richard Peterson. He plays the trumpet, the piano, the drums; he can play the piano and the trumpet at the same time, and he’s released four CD’s of jazz-inspired music. He’s also worked with Stone Temple Pilots, performed with local Seattle band The Fresh Young Fellows, and jammed with Jeff Bridges on the piano.
“Big City Dick” presents the life and friendships of Richard Peterson in several segments. The first portion of the documentary showcases Richard’s musical talents and acquaints you with a few of his friends. Generally speaking, this part of “Big City Dick” is happy. Scott McCaughey of The Fresh Young Fellows relates what a wonderful musician Richard is, and Pat Cashman, a Seattle TV/radio personality, shares how much he treasures his friendship with Mr. Peterson. Nevertheless, under the high spirits, the enthusiasm, and the infectious laughter, you can’t help but sense a wave of sadness in Richard’s eyes. In no way is his vibrant personality a mask, however, you know that everything isn’t “all right.” In relaying this sort of emotion or observation to the viewer, the filmmakers have deposited foreshadowing in the most discreet fashion.
The remaining sections of the film address Peterson’s being an autistic savant, a condition that contributes to his impeccable memory and his excellent musical abilities. The documentary also follows Richard’s love for Johnny Mathis and a TV show called ‘Sea Hunt’, and elaborates on his rough childhood. Deprived of paternal affection, Richard seeks friendships with individuals who can replenish the love that he rarely experienced. “Big City Dick” is two hours long but is so engaging that you’re seldom aware of how much of it you’ve seen. Milam, Harder, and Pottinger capture the remarkable resourcefulness and tenacity that characterizes Richard. On occasion, it’s difficult to understand Richard’s speech, but you still “get” what he’s saying. He has that kind of effect on people.