4 August 2015 | StevePulaski
Calls your bluff and subsequently asks, "where have you been" in the most endearing way
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story opens by calling our bluff that this may indeed be the first time we've ever heard the name "Carroll Spinney" in our lives, despite his lifelong role as Big Bird on the globally loved children's program Sesame Street. The documentary opens with a gameshow, featuring three individuals, two of which claiming to be Caroll Spinney and one of whom legitimately being the man behind the bird. After the men are asked several questions, at the end of the show, the real Carroll Spinney is requested to stand up. When the announcer makes the request, we see one man slightly move before the film's title card appears. We never cut back to the gameshow for the remainder of the eighty-four minute film.
Caroll Spinney probably made your childhood significantly happier, or at least more spirited, despite this film or this review being one of the first times you've ever heard his name. Big Bird, even to this day, is an essential character in Sesame Street; an overgrown child of sorts, who's naivete and curiosity replicates that of a countless number of toddlers each and every day. Despite this, like most puppeteers, his name isn't recognized by the general public, even with all the joy and happiness he's provided children and their parents over the years. If Kevin Clash could get his own profile and career presented in Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, a very solid documentary, it's time for Spinney to get the same treatment.
Caroll Spinney has the softspoken voice and gentle look to mirror a relative of yours, which instantly makes him so charismatic and worthy of a documentary. He fondly recalls his early days as a puppeteer, a career choice that brewed after he purchased a puppet for five cents and began holding shows for two cents. Spinney found that he could generate laughter, excitement, and real enjoyment from his audiences, so his stages became larger over time and his shows more elaborate. One of his first big shows, however, performed under the title of "Experimental Theater," became a disaster due to technical malfunctions beyond his control. Boasting a real performer's attitude and mentality of a show refusing to be dampered by circumstance, Spinney persisted on and was recognized by Jim Henson, who needs no introduction, after the show. Henson told Spinney about a children's program he wanted to create and how he needed a committed puppeteer to play one of the leading characters; from there, the rest was just about history.
Spinney's excitement carried over to working on Sesame Street in a conflicting way, at first. Spinney was largely in awe of Henson, his work, and his Muppet empire, resulting in the difficultly of trying to realize his potential whilst working under potential that could never be duplicated. However, upon being allowed to play the character of Big Bird, originally written as a simpleton or a yokel, and granted full creative range behind the character, Spinney's craft fell into place and morphed into something legendary and universally commended.
With that, Spinney became the puppeteer for Oscar the Grouch, who is basically Big Bird's opposite. Where Big Bird is carried through the day by his optimism and idealism, Oscar sits pessimistically focused on being downtrodden, but never evil nor menacing, as one interviewee points out. Another interviewee makes an surprisingly honest statement about the near impossibility of a character like Oscar even being allowed on a kid's show in the modern day. This impressive duality, played by the same talented soul, is the heart of Spinney, communicated through perhaps the most tender outlet that can summon joy and inspire creativity in many.
I, however, was not prepared for how sad I Am Big Bird was going to be. Spinney talks about how he'd spend his days laughing on set, interacting with Henson, his idol, and have a great time playing two limitless characters, before just going home and basking in lonesomeness following his divorce (and reflections on persistent bullying in school). His divorce left him depressed and contemplating suicide for quite sometime, though, like Big Bird himself, he settled on the idea that eventually, even if it seems like it'll never happen, the sun will come out. His sun came in the form of Debra, an intern who worked on Sesame Street doing anything and everything. After repeatedly being shot down for a date, Spinney tried once more and the two hit it off tremendously, eventually marrying and having three kids with her. Spinney's daughter Jessica claims that often times people think her parents' love is fake because the way they treat one another seems like an act of overblown infatuation.
I Am Big Bird, while focusing a lot on Spinney's personal life, is sure to include ideas and notions of what it means to be Big Bird. Day after day, Spinney's work attire consists of a hot, eight-foot-tall mascot, where he is positioned inside with his right arm extended in the air to move Bird Bird's mouth (and hold his head and neck up), while his left arm is placed inside Big Bird left wing. Inside the costume is a monitor, showing Spinney what Big Bird looks like to the audience at home, in addition to a script that is taped to the inside of Big Bird's stomach. At eighty-years-old, Spinney still doesn't think of this impossibly uncomfortable position as a chore, but a real blessing.
I Am Big Bird's demeanor may be a bit too saccharine for a documentary, sometimes distracting audiences with a harmonious score that embellishes emotion rather than emphasizing the souls behind these puppets, though some of the sadness is indeed warranted. This is a documentary that not only achieves the goal of informing us about somebody we probably didn't know by name, but being an affectionate, loving ode to a man without being pandering fan-service nor bloated hagiography.