In 1962, a young entrepreneur named Caroll Spinney was performing at a puppeteering festival when a misused spotlight ruined his show. Bowing out gracefully, the disappointed artist headed backstage after his abbreviated act. While he knew that Jim Henson was in the audience, Spinney had no idea just how crucial his humility was in catching the maverick puppeteer’s eye. Henson offered him a job with The Muppets spinoff, Sesame Street, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s I am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story delivers decades of nostalgia-inducing footage and interviews, profiling the development of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch while delighting 46 years worth of Sesame Street fans. LaMattina and Walker lift the curtain on the little-known Spinney, revealing the man behind the feathers of one of the world’s most ubiquitous icons. From his humble beginnings, to the years he spent in awe of the great Jim Henson, every noteworthy aspect of the performer’s life is meticulously documented to paint the portrait of a great man with an even greater legacy.
Opening with a clip from To Tell the Truth, LaMattina and Walker make it a point to remark on Spinney’s lack of notoriety. A theme that persists throughout the documentary, Spinney is shown to be a relative outcast on the set of Sesame Street — owing in large part to his unique costumes, and, secondarily, to his childhood as a loner. Devoting much of their time to the man’s personality, the directors make a case for Big Bird and Oscar being the two sides of the same coin. Drawing lines between Spinney and his characters, the audience comes to realize that his puppets become far more personal modes of performance than traditional acting. An extension of the self, the puppets on Sesame Street — Spinney’s in particular — are products of the personalities and life experiences of their creators/puppeteers. Candid shots of Spinney practicing Big Bird’s awkward movements (right arm raised and pantomiming dialogue) display a man who is utterly connected with his more-famous counterpart. LaMattina and Walker show that the man in the yellow suit and orange pants is as inexorably connected with the character as many of the children who idolize him.
I am Big Bird does a wonderful job blending archival material with modern interviews and production footage. We play behind-the-scenes with the cast and crew of Sesame Street, exploring relationships and cast histories along the way. While the film is an in-depth study of Spinney and his legacy, there is plenty of material with Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado and Sonia Manzano to make even the most time-hardened adult revel in a youth spent watching PBS. The history of the prolific show is mapped alongside the increasing international fame of Big Bird, relived through carefully selected personal footage shot by Debra Spinney. Careful not to deviate from the fun of a life filled with puppets, the directors concentrate on the fun and camaraderie built by the Sesame Street empire. A labor of love, the show is revealed to be every bit as important to those crafting it, as it was (is) to generations of viewers who grew up with various iterations of the program.
I am Big Bird finally gives Caroll Spinney the attention he deserves. A man so comfortable with himself and so resolute in doing something important, he is more than just the face behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Spinney is responsible for entertaining countless children by injecting untold happiness into the lives of millions, if only for an hour at a time.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.