I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Nearly every day for 46 years, a man named Caroll Spinney has stepped into a giant feathered suit and given life to Sesame Street’s Big Bird, one of the most beloved characters in television history. This short, sweet documentary from Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker gives us a glimpse of the man behind the bird, and it’s a delight.
We learn a bit about Spinney’s upbringing. His mother was loving and supportive, but his father was short-tempered and sometimes abusive. Spinney didn’t have an easy time at school, either: “Having the name Caroll didn’t help,” he says. After a stint in the Air Force, he took a job on the Boston production of the Bozo the Clown TV franchise. Not long after, he crossed paths with Jim Henson, and that meeting would bear fruit years later when Henson invited him to be part of his Muppets ensemble. We also learn about Spinney’s love life. He had a troubled first marriage that ended in divorce, and then he met the adorable Debra, the love of his life, who offers personal anecdotes about their meeting, their life together, and Spinney’s career.
The film offers plenty of iconic images, faces, and scenes, which will amuse everyone from Generation X on. It’s a treat to learn, as an adult, about what went into such a big — often formative and educational — part of one’s childhood. LaMattina and Walker provide clips from the show’s original pitch to PBS, and they give us some behind-the-scenes insight into the technical requirements of being Big Bird (it’s more complicated and physically demanding than you might think). We also get some footage from Henson’s memorial, during which Spinney, as Big Bird, muscles through a woeful rendition of “Bein’ Green.” If you have a dry eye at the end of this scene, you might want to see your doctor. Hardheartedness can be a killer.
Turns out, Big Bird’s trademark innocence and warmth came from within. Spinney has a capacity for childlike wonder and joy, or as Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, says, “He can go back in time, almost, and re-create the feelings and the thoughts and the questions and the fears of a youngster.” Lest you think he’s all bubblegum and roses, though, you’ll learn that Spinney also embodies Big Bird’s alter ego, Oscar the Grouch.
The filmmakers go overboard with the sentiment when they arrange for an on-camera reunion with the young woman who, as a child, co-starred with Spinney in Big Bird in China. The sweeping, nearly omnipresent score is ridiculously treacly. It’s unnecessary and manipulative, and it distracts from the genuine emotion that’s happening on-screen.
But I’ll stop there before I grumble too much about what’s mostly a delightful film. If I’m not careful, people will start calling me Oscar.
Look at the beak on that guy: Caroll Spinney with an unidentified friend