Eight feet tall and poofing with yellow plumage, Big Bird is more than a mere pop-culture icon. Since 1969, when the bandy-legged Muppet made his debut on the groundbreaking PBS series Sesame Street, the eternal boy-bird with the high-pitched voice has been the identifying figure for generations of preschoolers and gradeschoolers. What Big Bird learned, millions learned along with him.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a documentary portrait of the eternal boy-man who brings Big Bird to life, the puppeteer Caroll Spinney. Although the film, co-directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, is too treacly for its own good (the music! the agony!), Spinney himself is a great subject. The son of a loving mother and a hot-headed, abusive father, Spinney grew up playing with puppets - losing himself in the magic, the fantasy, and the weirdness of bringing fluffy fabric to life by moving your fingers and hands inside it.
He joined the Air Force in the early 1950s, traveling the world, drawing comic strips about life in the military. Then he went to work doing kiddie TV, as a supporting character in the creepy-ish 1960s show, Bozo's Big Top. But Spinney wanted something more meaningful, and he got his chance after running into Muppets mastermind Jim Henson at a puppet festival in Salt Lake City: an invitation to join the cast of a fledgling experiment in children's programming, Sesame Street.
Spinney, in his 80s, is still Big Bird, going on 45 years now, although he has long had a younger understudy, Matt Vogel - one of the many talking heads to offer adoration and insight in the film. Others speaking about Spinney include director Frank Oz, producer Joan Ganz Cooney, former Sesame Street castmates Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, and Sonia Manzano, and Spinney's second wife, Debra, whom he met on the show. (Spinney's account of their meeting is comically odd - he may have some facial recognition issues). His grown children also offer testimonials.
Spinney comes across as a man whose warm spirit is literally at the core of the loving, if loopy Big Bird. But the film reminds us that he's also long served as the principal puppeteer and personality of another Sesame Street mainstay - the perennially cranky Oscar the Grouch.
Would an I Am Oscar the Grouch doc be an altogether different affair, with Spinney revealed as a bitter curmudgeon, a miserable misanthrope? Happily, from the evidence provided in I Am Big Bird, the answer is no.
Directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker. With Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney, Frank Oz, Matt Vogel, and others. Distributed by Tribeca Film.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).
Playing at: PFS at the Roxy.EndText