PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'I Am Big Bird' Pulls Back the Curtain on a Remarkable Entertainer

This film deftly strings together the highs and lows of beloved puppeteer Caroll Spinney’s career with enough evidence to back up the illuminating profile of its subject.

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Cast: Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney
Directors: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Rated: NR
Studio: Tribeca Film
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-05-06
UK date: 2015-05-17

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.