I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROL SPINNEY STORY, US, 2014. Directed by Dave La Mattina, Chad N.Walker. 90 minutes. Rated PG (Mild Themes and coarse language.)
The last words before the final credits of this documentary are ‘unconditional love’. They are spoken about the subject of the film, Caroll Spinney. But they also indicate the tone of the film, the perspective of the directors, unconditional love for Spinney, a documentary that it is your eulogistic, emotional, even affectionate.
And who is Caroll Spinney? And a big percentage of the answer is: Big Bird.
So many audiences will remember Big Bird as a part of their lives. Older people might remember their children sitting in front of Sesame Street. Others, who are not as young as they used to be, will remember sitting in front of the television themselves watching Sesame Street. and, that will apply to many of the younger generations. Big Bird will be remembered is that eight feet high, yellow-feathered, gawky looking, childlike-sounding, huge puppet with the stranger red striped trousers.
While the voice had its squeaky tone, inside Big Bird was a puppeteer, Caroll Spinney, who spent more than 40 years as Bird – and was still doing is at age 79 don’t.
We are taken through the biography of Spinney, his early interest in puppets, in puppeteering, going to a convention in Salt Lake City in the late 1960s, encountering Jim Henson, the celebrated puppeteer who establish the Muppets, being invited by Henson to participate in bringing his puppets alive, movements of hesitation and doubt, then finally finding his stride, so to speak, as big Bird (and the contrast with his voice of Oscar the Grouch).
Spinney is an engaging character on screen – not without some difficulties with fellow-workers. But, he is a veteran puppeteer, his right arm extended high as he manipulates Big Bird’s head and mouth, but also a clown, Big Bird’s movements, antics, voice, comedy routines. As the decades have gone on, Spinney has developed character of Big Bird, endearing him to his children’s audience.
On the personal level, Spinney was married and his co-workers confirmed that his wife did not understand or appreciate his puppeteering work. After a divorce, he was to marry Debra, his wife of many decades, mother of his children, and his manager, sharing a wide range of life experiences with him, including a visit to China, for a television special, Big Bird in China, where a local Chinese girl participated in the program, whom they lost sight over many years but with whom they are reunited at the end of the 30th anniversary of the show.
One of the interests is the changing appearance of Caroll over the 40+ years of Big Bird, young, middle-aged, older.
We meet a lot of the people who worked with Jim Henson, including archival footage of Henson himself, well appreciated by fans of Sesame Street and, of course, the Muppets, especially Kermit – and, at his funeral service after his unexpected death at 53, Big Bird’s singing one of the songs, about being green. There are a lot of talking heads in the film, especially one of the best-known puppeteers and film directors, Frank Oz. While there is a great deal of admiration, there are many insights into the development of Sesame Street and the demands made on all those who contributed.
By and large, there is a great deal of sweetness and light – even in an unexpected situation where a woman was murdered on a property owned by Caroll and Debra, by someone that they had employed. The murdered woman sister and husband are interviewed, talk about the grief and the anger, even directed towards Caroll and Debra, but a reconciliation that is quite moving. The other big reconciliation is Caroll’s bonding with his father in his final years, a man who was a hard taskmaster when the boy was young which led to a great deal of resentment but, ultimately, to some love.
This documentary is not essential viewing, but will appeal to the Sesame Street admirers over the years – and will be of interest in tracing a significant aspect of American television in the last decades of the 20th century – and continues -, Caroll 79 and still going at the time of the making of the film - into the 21st century.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Copper Pot Films.
Released July 30th 2016.