Since the inauguration of Sesame Street into pop culture in 1969, Caroll Spinney has played both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, almost continuously, yet most audiences only remember the brilliant Jim Henson and the director/puppeteer Frank Oz. But just who is Caroll Spinney, the man behind the big yellow bird, and the scruffy Oscar the Grouch? Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker masterfully bring Mr. Spinney to the front in I am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, unfeathering the big yellow bird and revealing a humanity seldom brought to light to the general public, except to those close to the talented Caroll Spinney.
Perhaps without its successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised slightly over $100, 000, this film would not exist. Fortunately for us, and the way of the 21st century, with fan-based revenue, we’re able to rejoice in an incredible journey about the brilliance and talent of Caroll Spinney in this commentary and spellbinding documentary.
With the use of home movie footage from the 50s, provided by Spinney himself, and archival footage, much supplied by Spinney himself, his life is chronicled and interspersed with interviews from retired and current cast members. What is utterly brilliant is the sensitivity on display here; there’s such admiration and love towards the iconic Big Bird, which is ever present with Spinney’s personality, who exudes life into the character. Big Bird is a representation of the child-like sensibility of an incredible human being that brings joy to those around him and those that watch him on TV. Spinney is reflected in the curiosity of Big Bird and his spectral opposite, the curmudgeon Oscar, which illustrate the complexity of the individual.
The humanistic aspect of the iconic character is accentuated by Joshua Johnson’s evocative score. Spinney’s life is full of love and wonder; from living with a tyrannical father, evading the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission, and fulfilling the demanding role of Big Bird even in old age, at the twilight of his eighties. The most affective moment is when we realize that the twenty-first century Big Bird slouch is largely due to Spinney’s age and inability to continue to maintain the demanding physicality of controlling the iconic Big Bird – it becomes an epiphany of the limitation of life itself and an evanescent reality of the Big Bird performance.
However, ready to continue to imbue life into Big Bird is Matt Vogel, the inheritor of the legend. Yet even in this realization it’s Spinney’s resilience that gives Big Bird life, disappearing into the performance where it almost appears that there is no Spinney, just Big Bird; it is as if Big Bird has transcendence over Spinney and the enigmatic Spinney has melded and taken over the performance.
Where most documentaries about lives of performers and their craft leave behind the humanity of the individual, instead presenting hollow representations of celebrity, the filmmakers behind I am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story eschews such clichés. Here they’ve crafted their own piece of celebration of the great Caroll Spinney and exult him with sweet admiration. What might have been a schmaltzy look at such an influential figure to millions of children around the world is something greater – much like the man behind the mask.