Matthew Turner delivers his verdict on moving documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which explores the talented man behind the iconic children’s character.
The fact that another Muppet-based documentary has appeared so soon after Constance Marks’ Being Elmo is no coincidence – David La Mattina and Chad N. Walker’s affectionate portrait of the man behind Big Bird came about after a successful Kickstarter campaign in the wake of the 2011 film.
As such, it’s a fascinating and ultimately moving story that’s a must-see for Muppet fans, though it’s relatively light on drama when compared with its furry red predecessor.
The film opens, somewhat appropriately, with Spinney’s 1970s appearance on TV gameshow What’s My Line? As the man behind two of Sesame Street’s most famous characters (Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch – very much the yang to Big Bird’s yin), his work was seen by millions, yet his name and face remained completely unknown. As the subtitle suggests, the film seeks to redress that balance.
Using a combination of archive material, animation, copious home movies and to-camera interviews, the film traces Spinney’s life story, from a lonely, bullied childhood (“Being called Caroll didn’t help…”) and his relationship with a strict father, through early work as a character performer on the Bozo The Clown show (the real-life inspiration for the Simpsons’ Krusty), to a life-changing meeting with Jim Henson at a puppeteer convention in Salt Lake City in 1969 and more than four decades of work on Sesame Street.
The film also details Spinney’s moving relationship with his beloved second wife Debra, and there’s an amusing anecdote about how he asked her out three times before she said yes, but each time he thought he was asking out a different woman. Similarly, the film isn’t afraid to pull out some prime tear-jerk material, such as the weepy reunion between the Spinneys and Lianzi Ouyang, a Chinese woman who played Big Bird’s companion in a 1983 Big Bird In China special when she was a young girl.
That said, there are moments of darkness in the film, but they’re mostly confined to short diversions, such as a news story about the murder of a young woman on Spinney’s estate, or the chilling revelation that Spinney was supposed to be on the ill-fated Challenger flight, but got dropped because his suit was too big to fit aboard the Shuttle. Similarly, the film points out that Spinney’s job is essentially quite isolating (especially compared to other puppeteers, who work together) and there are several indications that he didn’t mix well with his Sesame Street colleagues, but the film frustratingly brushes over any specific details.
Incredibly, 81 year-old Spinney is still working and still going strong, though he admits that Big Bird’s posture isn’t what it once was. Happily, the Big Bird legacy is safely in hand, as Spinney has already trained his eventual replacement (bemusedly interviewed here), though on the evidence of this film, he could be waiting a while.
In short, this is an entertaining and unashamedly heart-warming documentary that compensates for its lack of drama with a wealth of great anecdotes and fascinating behind-the-scenes detail.
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