I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Lau­rel Glad­den

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

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