Some folks are just good people.
As I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story shows time after time, puppeteer Caroll Spinney, famous for bringing Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life, has lived his life – professionally and personally – the right way, using his art to enrich the lives of people around him.
As easy as it would have been to make a puff piece about this beloved entertainer, directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker still bring a hefty amount of substance to the table – often from the lips of Spinney himself – to show that not everything has come easy for the puppeteer throughout his illustrious career behind the yellow feathers.
The documentary dives deep into the entertainer’s childhood, recalling stories of Spinney’s supportive mother who fostered his love of puppeteering and storytelling and the rough relationship that Spinney had with his stern father. After leaving home, Spinney joined the Air Force, bounced around to different children’s programs to showcase his talents and eventually landed at Children’s Television Workshop where he made a career on Sesame Street with his characterizations of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Spinney’s time working for Sesame Street has been momentous in terms of the impact his work has had on culture, but behind the scenes, the doc highlights that things weren’t always easy. Spinney struggled early at CTW, unable to fully reach his potential as a puppeteer at the start of his professional career. But, he stuck it out (even after thoughts of quitting entered his mind) and forged the career her has now.
The entertainer also had to deal with a crushing divorce early on, one that Spinney says took a major toll on him. The scenes where Spinney describes this bleak time in his life are as powerful as they are crushing.
Spinney also found the love of his wife on the job, with his wife Debra playing a major part in his success as a puppeteer. She also is one of the documentary’s most illuminating talking heads, providing a level of insight into Spinney’s persona that few can.
LaMattina and Walker weave together Spinney’s life story with various examples of the impact that his work on Sesame Street has made in pop culture. With a runtime that hits exactly 90 minutes, the filmmakers had to be choosey with what got the magnifying glass and what got the scissors. They chose to make the film more about Spinney than Big Bird, which ended up working to the directors’ advantage, even if, at some points, the film gets a little too jumpy to fit everything in. The scenes that linger are the ones that stick the most.
One scene in particular, raw footage of Spinney’s performance of Big Bird singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at Jim Henson’s funeral, feels as tender to watch as it does special to experience. The film goes more places and is allowed more access in its short run time than one might expect.
The film really zeroes in on the relationship Spinney has with Big Bird – one that is akin to the relationship a parent has with a child. The doc tells one story about how a group of ROTC members stole a group of feathers and caused damage to the Big Bird suit while Spinney was on the road performing. His reaction to the theft and damages were akin to if one of his children had been assaulted. It’s a revealing moment in the film that showcases just how important the character really is to Spinney.
It would have been easy to make a revelatory highlight reel of Spinney’s career, complete with praise-filled talking heads that complimented the entertainer’s work ethic, attitude and kindness. It also wouldn’t have been out of place. People who choose to use their entertainment for the betterment of mankind absolutely deserve the highest kudos.
With Spinney the most present narrator in the piece, however, the documentary ends up being far more. The kindly puppeteer takes viewers through the hills and down into the valleys of his time on Earth, an affecting journey with a man that really is as genuine as he appears on television.
At the age of 81, Spinney continues to don the yellow feathers and purple feet and play his iconic character. While Sesame Street has changed over the years and the spotlight is not always in Big Bird’s corner, Spinney has remained as dedicated to his craft as ever. And, he shows no signs of slowing down.
I Am Big Bird is a fitting ode to Spinney’s career, one that might be biased towards its subject and has every right to be. Some people are just good, and some documentaries are just that as well. Not many knocks can be made against either.