SIFF Film Review – I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Off the heels of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011) comes another documentary of perhaps an even more iconic Sesame Street character. As the title would suggest, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2014) details the puppeteer who brought to life our favorite eight-foot tall yellow bird. Caroll Spinney is also known for playing Oscar The Grouch, but it’s clear that the film (directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker) focuses on his work as Big Bird. He is one of the original Sesame Street puppeteers, playing the character since 1969. And at age 78 (at the time the documentary was shot), he has no plans of stopping.
Big Bird is one of the more unique Muppet characters. While others are shot from the waist up (usually behind some obstruction for the performers to hide behind), Big Bird can be seen from top to bottom. Spinney does not have the luxury of hiding behind a box or table (or in the case of Oscar The Grouch, a trash can). He has to enter the costume completely, have the ability to walk, move, and talk simultaneously all on his own. One of the more intriguing sequences has Spinney preparing for the day’s work, memorizing his lines, putting on devices and contraptions, and then finally getting into the costume. Part of this requires him to lift his hand straight up into the puppet’s head to control the eyes and mouth. I can barely manage to sit up straight for a few minutes at a time, I can’t imagine the type of strain the performance weighs on his body.
But Spinney seems born to play this character. Through home videos and photographs, we see a man whose only desire was to be a puppeteer. Testimonials from family, friends, and colleagues from Sesame Street (including Frank Oz) talk of him with compassion and kindness. There’s barely a negative thing spoken about him. By all accounts, Spinney seems to be a free spirited, playful, and fun loving person, perfect for the role of Big Bird. There has to be a strong amount of earnestness to play the character, as it represents the very youth watching him on television. Although Spinney has an entire life of experience inside of him, he still has the ability to exude an aura of discovery and naiveté.
Accompanied by a nostalgic score (lots of lonely piano keys playing soft melodies), the film has a very warm sensibility. For the most part, this is a very happy story. Sure, we touch upon some of the darker sides of Spinney’s life: an abusive father, bouts of depression, a failed first marriage, loss of loved ones through the passage of time, etc. But compared to many other documentaries about specific individuals, Spinney is…well…relatively normal. If you’re looking for a troubled soul fighting some inner demon, you’re not going to get that here. The pacing skips along quickly in the first half, flying through his early life and spending the majority of the runtime on his tenure at Sesame Street. He followed his dreams despite ridicule from others, and a chance meeting with Jim Henson would set him on the path for the rest of his life.
At one point, Big Bird was an international star, allowing Spinney to travel the world and interact with different kinds of people. One subplot features the making of Big Bird in China (1983), and the subsequent friendship Spinney had with his young Asian costar, Ouyang Lianzi. While being well known and visiting these different places, Spinney still comes off as a humble, down to Earth personality. He constantly talks about his undying love for his second wife (Debra Spinney), and she does the same for him. The way they speak about each other has the gushiness of two young people completely head over heels in love, which is a nice change of pace from the more modern, cynical outlook on relationships. Even more interesting is the relationship Spinney has with his children. His kids experienced both the good and bad sides of his work: happy to see their dad on TV everyday, but often spending days with him not at home. Do they hold a grudge? No. In fact, their understanding of how passionate he is makes them all the more appreciative of him.
Caroll Spinney appears to be a very nice man. Does he have moments of frustration and anger, both at home and as a performer? Of course he does, just as well all do. But whenever he puts on that big yellow costume, all of that disappears. In one key moment, we watch as Spinney is fitted into the suit, and all of sudden, he goes away and Big Bird comes to life. It’s a transformation in every sense of the word, through decades of practice. I Am Big Bird may not offer grandiose revelations or tell a hard-hitting story about the evils of society, but it does provide a glimpse into a person who’s touched more lives than some are even aware of.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with co-director Dave LaMattina and subject Caroll Spinney at SIFF 2014.