I Am Big Bird uses interviews and archival footage to chart the life of Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played the character of Big Bird on Sesame Street, from the show’s inception in 1969 until 2018, just a year before his death at the age of 84.
The fact that Spinney played such a physically demanding character for so long is testament to his deep love for the role, and this documentary tries to show where that passion comes from. We start with his childhood, shared with a loving mother and an abusive father, move through his early days on the show, a young man struggling in New York and on the verge of quitting, until we see him blossom into being the heart of a cultural icon known around in the world, and finding what appears to be real happiness and balance.
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This is not a hard biting documentary. I Am Big Bird aims to be the lightest of touches, but frankly that’s part of its charm. No one wants to hear that the man behind one of the most beloved children’s characters of all time was a womanising, drink-addled gambler. Instead, it seems that the reason Spinney’s portrayal of Big Bird has touched so many hearts is that he can become this character of childlike purity because he, himself, is in many ways childlike. In a post Yewtree, #MeToo world it’s almost a relief to hear of a children’s television icon being spoken off with such fondness.
This approach, though charming, warm, and interesting, does mean that the film never quite breaks into the realms of deep poignancy. Everything feels a little too safe, too managed and skin deep. The closest we get is when muppeteer Frank Oz talks about Spinney. Although never rude about his fellow performer, it feels that though the two might be friends, they aren’t exactly friendly.
Due to the nature of their work, the muppeteers would create characters by bouncing off each other. They were a tight-knit group with deep, personal bonds. Except, that is, for Spinney. Isolated in his suit it seems he never gelled with the others in the same way. Rather than shaped by others, his performances came entirely from within. It’s good to have this perspective, because later on, when an almost tearful Oz talks about how moving Spinney’s tribute as Big Bird was at Jim Henson’s memorial service, it’s clear that this comes from a place of deep emotion. He’s not paying a compliment to a friend, but instead thanking a man and performer he respects.
Another reminder about how deeply affecting Spinney’s performances could be is a clip of when Big Bird had to deal with the death of his friend, Mr Hooper. His uncanny ability to be able to portray a childlike understanding of and reaction to a loved one’s death is one of the great moments of television history, and one I’m sure has helped many young people understand their own losses as well.
Spinney also played Oscar the Grouch. Though people do talk about how the two characters represent different aspects of him, it feels pretty clear that he is more yellow bird than green monster. Throughout the documentary we catch glimpses of Spinney’s own, deeply personal identification with the character of Big Bird.
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There are small cartoons drawn by Spinney, a talented artist as well as puppeteer, of himself and his wife Debra. However, in some of these, though Debra is drawn as a version of herself, Spinney has instead depicted himself as Big Bird. This level of seeing himself as Big Bird makes one particular anecdote deeply chilling. A group of university students had been tasked with watching over the costume during a meal break. Instead, they tore it apart for mementos and left it lying on the floor, broken and muddy. Spinney, himself a father of three, describes the experience as though finding his own child raped.
By the end of the film we have a portrait of Spinney as someone who was never lonely, but certainly seems to have been a loner. Grateful to have been given an opportunity by a man he deeply respected and who became a close friend, and a man able to live his life on his terms. He was a truly gifted performer and this documentary – an unashamed love letter to the man – pays wonderful tribute to him and his legacy.
I Am Big Bird is streaming on The Icon Film Channel now.