I AM BIG BIRD: THE CARROLL SPINNEY STORY

Reviewed by GREG KING
Documentary
Directors: David LaMattina and Chad N Walker.

Big Bird is one of the most well known and popular characters on television, having been a fixture on Sesame Street for four decades. But despite a list of accolades that include a swag of Emmy and Grammy awards and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, little is known about Carroll Spinney, the man who has played the character for over forty years. Through a wealth archival footage, candid interviews with friends, family and colleagues such as Frank Oz, and Spinney himself, this warm and pleasant documentary reveals the man behind the bird.
Throughout the film, Spinney comes across as a genuinely nice, easy going guy who is respected by his peers and colleagues. The fulsome praise does become a little too schmaltzy at times, and the film probably needed a bit of bite to spice it up. But there is no hint of scandal attached to his life in the media, which means there is little drama or controversy here.
Directors David LaMattina and Chad N Walker (Brownstones To Red Dirt, etc) have gained access to a wealth of material, including lots of photographs, home movie footage and even some behind-the-scenes footage shot during the filming of the 1983 film Big Bird In China. Spinney and his second wife Debra are also keen home movie makers, so there is lots of video footage here documenting their decades long relationship. But some of it is a little bland and smacks of unnecessary padding.
The film unfolds in largely chronological fashion, following Spinney from childhood and his early interest in puppets through to his work on the short lived Bozo’s Big Top, where he created numerous characters, through to his tenure on Sesame Street where he also voiced the character of Oscar, the trash talking Grouch. We learn of his abusive and disapproving father, with whom he reconciled later in life, and his divorce from his first wife, who didn’t really support his interest or career in the entertainment industry.
It is the character of Big Bird that has brought Spinney fame and adulation, and the film spends a lot of time exploring the impact he has had on American culture. Big Bird even accompanied the legendary Bob Hope on a tour of China. And although he is nearing 80, he is filled with a thirst for life and obviously has no intention of slowing down or retiring. He has a child like enthusiasm that is infectious and irrepressible.
There is a poignant note as Spinney and his colleagues talk about the death of Jim Henson, their mentor, puppeteering pioneer and friend, who basically discovered Spinney during a show in Las Vegas in 1969. Henson started Sesame Street and created the enduring and endearing Muppets, and was regarded in high esteem by all who worked with him. This also segues into a discussion of what will happen when Spinney eventually retires. We meet his replacement Matt Vogel, who is content to still play second fiddle to Spinney at the moment, and he does some of the more physical stunts that Spinney can no longer perform given his age. There are some insights into how Spinney manipulates the character from inside the massive suit, which are interesting.
One interesting revelation concerns the fact that he was scheduled to fly on the Challenger space mission in an attempt to interest children in the space program. At the last minute though he was replaced on the ill-fated flight by a school teacher, whom NASA thought was more appropriate to the mission.
Most of the interest in this documentary comes from the behind the scenes footage from the classic children’s television series, and there are plenty of these that will strike a responsive chord with adult audiences who grew up watching the show. Like a lot of productions today, I Am Big Bird was financed by a Kickstarter campaign, so there are obviously a lot of fans out there. I Am Big Bird serves as a nice companion piece to the revealing 2011 documentary Being Elmo, about Kevin Clash, another unknown man behind another iconic puppet. ★★☆

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