The 2011 documentary “Shut Up Little Man: an Audio Misadventure” didn’t seem to be the type of film that would move me in any way. I expected laughter and perhaps a mild state of “I can’t believe it.” But it caught me off guard and moved me.
The film chronicles the peculiar tale of two friends, Mitch Deprey and Eddie Lee Sausage, who, seeking life in the big city in the bigger 1980s, move from their Midwestern home to San Francisco. Once there the two move into a worn-out shack of an apartment building. The building is glaringly pink and thus earned the nickname “Pepto Bismol Palace.” Mitch and Eddie weren’t long in the “Palace” before they heard the loud and volatile rantings of their next-door neighbors, Peter and Raymond.
As far as Mitch and Eddie could tell, Peter and Raymond did nothing all day but drink and then engage in violent yelling matches. When the next-door noise became too much for the Midwesterners, they approached the neighbors to ask them to keep it down. This didn’t work out so well, as the belligerent Raymond threatened the lives of Mitch and Eddie.
Worried for their own safety, Mitch and Eddie began recording the sounds through the wall. They reasoned that if something tragic should happen to them, there would at least be some evidence left behind in the form of audiocassette tapes.
No one expected those tapes to take on a life of their own. At first Mitch and Eddie would record mix tapes of music for friends. In between tracks they’d insert a sound bite from their rowdy neighbors as a kind of comic relief. These tapes would end up circulating across the nation. The sound bites of Peter and Raymond and their vulgar yelling matches would soon become an underground sensation, spawning comic books, screenplays and even an off-Broadway play.
The film tracks the journey of these strange recordings and the effect they had across the United States. And an older Mitch and Eddie reunite to finally answer the mystery of just who were Peter and Raymond.
“Shut Up Little Man” illustrates the past in reenactments and snapshots taken from Mitch and Eddie’s time in San Francisco. The reenactments offer a clever twist with Mitch and Eddie reprising their former roles as themselves while actors play Raymond and Peter. The reenactments breathe some life and drama into the story, and raise the film up from standard documentary tell-it-like-it-is doldrums. The present-day sequences capture Mitch and Eddie returning to San Francisco as they try to track down their one-time not-so-neighborly neighbors.
These sequences are interspersed with the story of the tapes themselves and their viral rise to pop-culture stardom. Though interesting at first, the tale of the tapes drags on as the question of copyright and ownership is bandied about and belabored between playwrights and artists and producers. This discussion is necessary perhaps in order to explain why the recordings never reached broader success or exposure. But the film begins to fall flat with the tapes as they reach the end of their journey.
The investigation into just who these vulgar neighbors were is far more interesting and reveals a very personal tale of the would-be antagonists. I began to feel for them and wonder what it took for them to get to where they were when Mitch and Eddie first discovered them. I got the feeling they were never in on what the film portrayed as the “Big Joke.” These sad older men had lives and something had left them in each other’s care. That care wasn’t safe or secure. It was, in many cases, physically violent in addition to just vulgar yelling bouts.
What struck me most about “Shut Up Little Man” was the media of these recordings themselves. The film reminded me of a time, most likely lost now in an era of MP3s, of mix-tapes. While watching the film I began to miss the audiocassette tapes. I missed rewinding the flimsy plastic cases with a pencil and I recalled fondly staying up late into the night assembling the perfect mix for any given occasion.
It’s all easier now. I can make a playlist by dragging and dropping digital files. I could probably even find the recordings of Peter and Raymond online and add them to my digital playlist. But I feel I’ll never know where they really came from just like I feel Mitch and Eddie can never really know who Peter and Raymond really were.
“Shut Up Little Man” shines on a couple of different levels. It slows down when the voyage of the recordings is investigated too deeply, but the sheer fact that something so peculiar can become such a phenomenon is interesting in itself. Likewise, Mitch and Eddie do try to uncover the story of these unwitting stars of their recordings. In doing so they reveal the human side of the “monsters next door.”
If you’ve ever had neighbors that just couldn’t keep quiet, or maybe even just acted in strange and mysterious ways, this movie might be for you. If you’ve ever made a mix tape in the wee hours of the morning during the 1980s, then this movie is certainly for you.