It’s almost impossible to consider a film like I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story without thoughts of 2011’s Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey coming to mind. While I Am Big Bird does not directly reference that other documentary, it certainly addresses the popularity of the little red monster who speaks in the third person. While I love Elmo and enjoyed Being Elmo, the documentary about that character and his performer Kevin Clash, perhaps due to my age, I was much more drawn to I Am Big Bird. In my age category, Big Bird was as popular as Elmo was at his peak. As a young child I would marvel daily at the exploits of Big Bird and his imaginary friend Mr. Snuffleupagus. Later, as I grew older, my love for Big Bird was rekindled in a new way. For a brief time I was fascinated with puppetry and few puppeteers could boast a more physically demanding role than Spinney, who, practically blind, inside of an oversized costume, with his arm stretched far above his head, still manages to portray the innocence and unconditional love of a yellow-feathered, eight-foot tall, avian child.
Spinney has performed Big Bird since the creation of the character in 1969. The fact that he still continues to operate the full body puppet these 45 years later (the last 15 with an apprentice/stand-in) is astounding. This documentary is as much about Spinney as it is about the early days of Sesame Street. References to Spinney’s performances as Oscar the Grouch is also included, but they are mostly there as an afterthought. In telling Spinney’s story, the filmmakers took many opportunities to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. However, the film contains some real gems, like Spinney’s inclusion in Bob Hope’s Road to China, the first American-style variety show filmed in The People’s Republic of China, which served as the inspiration for Big Bird in China. Another touching moment is Spinney’s performance (as Big Bird of course) of “Bein’ Green” for Jim Henson’s memorial. However, the film is not all brilliant choices. The filmmakers’ assertion that Mitt Romney’s statement of defunding PBS (thereby extrapolated to wanting to put Big Bird out of business) as the reason he lost the 2012 presidential election seems laughably absurd. Or perhaps, I’m still naively clinging to the belief that political views still drive politics in America.
There are various interviews with Spinney’s friends and family as well as many individuals who worked and still work with Spinney, some from the early days of Sesame Street. The film also uses animated reenactments as well as lots of old video and audio recordings to tell its story. As a result, sometimes the video and audio quality of the film is quite poor (and some short clips are reused in different circumstances). Still, I would, without hesitation, recommend this film to anyone. Unfortunately, I worry that I Am Big Bird is doomed to anonymity, being an also-ran in the realm of documentaries about Sesame Street puppeteers. Nevertheless, it provides insight into a fascinating individual and I can unreservedly say that I enjoyed it much more that Being Elmo. While Spinney’s personal triumphs might be less inspiring than Clash’s, this peek behind the curtain of the early days of Sesame Street that I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story provides is far more captivating to me.