Film Review: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

The man lurking beneath all those Big Bird yellow feathers takes the spotlight in this highly endearing documentary.
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The most electrifying performance on Broadway this—or, for that matter, any—season is being given by Steven Boyer as a demonically possessed puppeteer in Robert Askins' play, Hand to God. Puppetry is a venerable, sometimes denigrated possession, so it's salutary to credit the brilliant Boyer's worthy forebears in this art—and that is something I Am Big Bird does in spades.

This sweetly affectionate film focuses on Caroll Spinney, who for 40 years has been “Sesame Street”'s beloved Big Bird, that eternal, adorable innocent, as well as the show's resident grouch, the irascible, garbage can-dwelling Oscar. Spinney, now 81, looks back on his life and career, which begins with him buying his first five-cent puppet as a small boy in Waltham, Mass. His abusive relationship with his father led to him joining the Air Force, where his creative talents, which included drawing and animation, flourished. Following his military stint, he nabbed a job in the 1960s on the kids’ TV show “Bozo the Clown” and created a cat puppet character named Picklepuss. In 1969, he was performing at a festival in Salt Lake City where Jim Henson spotted him and, impressed with his grace under duress when technical disasters befell him, offered Spinney a job on “Sesame Street.” Although the stresses of work and living in New York City nearly led to his quitting the first year, Spinney was convinced to stay by the show's esteemed designer, Kermit Love.

Decades of success happily followed, with Spinney's Big Bird attaining rock-star status on the show, with his ability to directly communicate with viewers as young as two years old. Many of his co-workers, including co-puppeteer/director Frank Oz and the show's creator, producer Joan Ganz Cooney, are interviewed, lovingly attesting to Spinney's artistry and commitment. He saw Big Bird as an innocent child, which worked like a charm, but ran into conflict on the set with the writers when he insisted that Oscar be invested with a heart of gold beneath his crustiness. What's particularly revelatory here is the presentation of the sheer arduousness of Spinney's puppetry, with the exhausting weight and technical complexities of Big Bird's costume and Oscar's garbage can domicile.

Henson's early death was devastating and, just as Big Bird addressed death in a sensitive way for children on the show, Spinney performed the song "It's Not Easy Being Green" at his boss' funeral, and its full inclusion in the film is a real tearjerker. The darker aspects of Spinney's life—the scars left by his dad (with whom he reconciled) and his own depression and thoughts of suicide—are featured, and it's something of a miracle that he's managed to survive and be a terrific, if not always physically present, father to his three kids, who all speak of him with deep love. His second wife Deb, who is also his manager, is also obviously a great source of the man's hard-won happiness.

It has indeed been a rich, colorful puppeteering life, with Spinney traveling the globe and even getting into the political mix when Mitt Romney made his hapless comments about cutting PBS funding with a direct reference to Big Bird. (Cooney remembers thinking, "You'll be sorry!") There was a dark moment when, during a live appearance, a bunch of ROTC students attacked an unwisely unguarded Big Bird costume, snatching feathers for souvenirs, and the sight of it, looking as he says "raped and destroyed," deeply affected Spinney. “Sesame Street” was the first American TV show to go to China, and one of I Am Big Bird's most touching moments is the Spinneys' reunion during the show's 30-year anniversary celebration of that event with Lisa Ouyang, who played the little girl on that episode and hadn't seen her beloved surrogate beplumed father in 30 years.

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