I Am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story is a slight but interesting story of the life and career of the character’s creator, Carrol Spinney, and his family. While some may be put off by the slightly saccharine and relentlessly upbeat nature of the documentary, it pays tribute to a phenomenal artist who has brought joy to the young for over forty years.
Director: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker.
Screenplay: Dave LaMattina.
Runtime: 90 minutes.
Cast: Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney, Frank Oz, Jim Henson.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Festival Goers: See it.
Plot: Big Bird from Sesame Street may be iconic, but his creator and puppeteer Carrol Spinney is less so – despite having performed the character for over forty years. The film follows Carrol from his early days as a passionate performer, through a career in children’s television and finally to his collaboration with Henson and his famous team on the much beloved Sesame Street. Along the way, Carrol’s story is that of a struggling artist, but also one of most profound happiness.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Review: That Big Bird should still be so iconic, as a symbol of childhood everywhere around the West, yet his creator so unknown is a strange paradox. Yet, as I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story makes clear, that is partly because Big Bird and his tonal shadow Oscar the Grouch are one and the same with their creator, Caroll Spinney, who has been playing them for over forty years. The film is an interesting insight into the man, and the pressure that comes along with being such a beloved figure; yet in confining itself to Spinney, who by many measures has lived a charmed but uninteresting life with his soul mate Debra, it frustratingly misses opportunities to get to the core of Big Bird’s appeal or the creative process that continues to give birth to a show so loved by kids around the world. The result is a documentary that is satisfying in the little, unknown details it reveals – like the seemingly ill-advised filming of Big Bird in China – but fairly saccharine and shallow overall. That aside, for most audience members who grew up with that instantly recognisable theme tune, the film will be a pleasurable walk down memory lane with a few surprises in between.
One of those surprises is Spinney himself, with a colleague commenting that ‘you look inside and you’ll see feathers.’ Yet the yang to Big Bird’s ying is Oscar the Grouch, a character that allows Spinney to express his crankier, darker side. Perhaps a little too much is made of this light and shade within the film; as everyone remarks on how unequivocally nice Caroll is, and the most we see of said darker side is Spinney a little stressed. Spinney’s darker side is also explored cursorily when the film addresses his childhood and his route to Sesame Street; with a supportive mother who was herself an artist, and by some accounts an abusive father who only mellowed with age. The film shows a bit too much deference to its star here; pulling back from some deeper questions about his childhood, or divorce from his first wife, or tensions with a key director. It wants to tell a story of success, and justifiably, but with a relentlessly upbeat soundtrack and simplistic approach that fits with the brand. So we get some amusing stories of the gang on tour, and some interesting insights into the conditions that Spinney performs under, but not a lot more. There’s a potted history of Sesame Street, including the rise of Elmo, but the film starts to draw a long bow when it inserts Big Bird into the downfall of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
One true, strange, and beautiful insight does come late in the film, and courtesy of a gruesome twist of fate. The only truly dark chapter of the film recounts the murder of a neighbour’s wife by a contractor hired by the Spinneys to work on their home, who are completely blameless. At the time the attention was unendurable, and a sad blow to a couple who seem nothing other than the nicest people in the world. There are interviews with the victim’s family, and one in particular stands out in my mind – the victim’s husband still very obviously grieving after many years, yet touchingly poetic and stoic in his discussion of his wife and the Spinneys. It is deeply moving; yet it belongs to another film entirely, sitting awkwardly alongside the rest of the documentary’s material.
For those who loved Big Bird as a child, or Sesame Street really, I Am Big Bird is a light but touching walk down memory lane. Carrol and Debra Spinney seem to have found where the air is clear, and we can only hope they enjoy it for many years more.
Rating: Three stars.