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If there were ever a man lucky enough to have found his true calling in life, it’s the subject of Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker‘s affecting documentary. Profiling the unseen puppeteer who has inhabited the feathered, 8-foot-tall creature that has long personified Sesame Street for some 45 years, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story shines a much-deserved spotlight on this unheralded artist.
The now-octogenarian Spinney reveals himself to be much like the character he portrays: a sunny optimist with a childlike nature, who clearly takes great delight in performing. Of course, that’s probably not all of what he is, as demonstrated by the fact that he also plays the diametrically opposite Oscar the Grouch.
The film relates the story of his life and career with a plethora of enlightening and entertaining anecdotes. Although Spinney’s mother lovingly supported his fascination with puppets as a child, his emotionally volatile father was far less encouraging. Bullied at school because of his obsession, as well as because of his name, Spinney joined the Air Force at 19 and spent four years in the military.
After an initial stint working for Bozo the Clown, Spinney attracted the attention of Jim Henson after delivering a mishap-plagued performance at a puppet festival. The Muppets creator offered him a job anyway, telling him, “I liked what you were trying to do.”
His early years working with Henson weren’t immediately successful. He had trouble fitting in professionally, and his marriage to a woman embarrassed by his career ended in divorce. Spinney was on the verge of quitting when he literally and figuratively found his way into the character that he continues to portray to this day.
Happily, things got much better from there. He met Debra, who would become his second wife and the love of his life, and his character became an international sensation. He traveled to China to appear on a television special with Bob Hope — a decades-later reunion with a young girl who appeared on the show constitutes one of the film’s more contrived elements — and even starred in his own feature film, 1985’s Follow That Bird.
Spinney was approached by NASA in 1986 to fly aboard the space shuttle Challenger to promote interest in space exploration among young children. After some initial hesitation, he agreed, only to later be informed that his Big Bird costume wouldn’t fit on board. It was a rejection that ultimately saved his life.
He formed a deep friendship with Henson that lasted until his mentor’s untimely death at the age of 53. The footage of Spinney as Big Bird delivering a sorrowful rendition of “Bein‘ Green” at Henson’s memorial is one of the film’s most powerfully emotional moments.
There’s also fascinating behind-the-scenes footage that details the arduous physical demands of playing Big Bird, which involves painfully holding his arm upright — it controls the puppet’s head — for long stretches of time. Interviews with such key figures as Frank Oz and the late Jane Henson provide further informational context.
Other interesting segments involve his handpicked successor, Matt Vogel, who has been waiting patiently for nearly two decades for Spinney to retire; the character’s diminishing popularity in favor of Elmo when Sesame Street began skewing younger; and the amusing brouhaha that ensued after Mitt Romney declared, “I love Big Bird,” even while vowing to end funding for public television.
The film does get a bit sentimental and treacly at times, but it’s a forgivable offense considering the subject matter. Even for adults who’ve long since moved on to other things, it’s somehow comforting to know that the man inside the bird suit is just as lovable as the character he portrays.
Production: Copper Pot Pictures
Directors/producers: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Producer: Clay Frost
Screenwriter: Dave LaMattina
Director of photography/editor: Chad N. Walker
Composer: Joshua Johnson
Not rated, 90 min.
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