Title: I Am Big Bird
Director: Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker
Major Players: Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney, Frank Oz
Out Of Five: 3.5
Make sure there aren’t any young children around when you read what I’m about to tell you. You see, inside Sesame Street’s Big Bird is an 81 year old man with white hair and a beard. His name is Caroll Spinney and he’s been working inside that costume since 1969. Not only that, he’s Oscar The Grouch as well!
And his story is the subject of I Am Big Bird. One that started with a childhood dominated by bullying at school and a fractured relationship with his father, to being spotted by Jim Henson at a puppet festival and going on to be the voice – and body – behind literally one of the biggest characters in children’s TV.
The directors got lucky with this one. Spinney’s wife Debra admits that they’ve always filmed just about everything, especially their travels all over the world – with their big yellow friend, of course – so there’s a huge personal archive. And most of it comes from well before the advent of mobile phones and obligatory selfies and videos. Then there’s TV shows and Big Bird’s many other appearances, including his involvement in the 2012 US presidential election. Mitt Romney had said that he liked Big Bird, but he was going to cut the funding for PBS, and Big Bird went public with his reply. It was Spinney inside saying it.
The inside track on how he brings the character to life is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. He’s frequently seen on set wearing just Big Bird’s legs with retractable roller skates underneath those massive feet. But when he’s inside the costume, there’s a monitor strapped to his chest so he can see what’s going on around him. His lines – he calls it “script origami” – are cut up and taped around the monitor and there are various strings to pull to operate the beak, eyelids and arms. It’s physically demanding and you can see from the footage that today’s Big Bird doesn’t quite have the posture of the younger version.
Not that the film is all cheery optimism. There’s his unhappy childhood and eventual reconciliation with his father and the untimely death of his closest friend, Jim Henson. Then there’s the story of how NASA wanted Big Bird to go up in the Challenger shuttle in 1986 to encourage more children to watch. In the end there wasn’t enough room, so teacher Christa McAuliffe took his place and, just over a minute after take-off, the spacecraft exploded. It even looks at the effect of the murder of a young woman on Spinney’s estate by a man employed by him and his wife.
So it’s not all sunny and not a documentary for children, that’s for sure. But it’s balanced by the more amusing stories – how Oscar The Grouch was based on a New York cab driver – and the more life affirming ones, primarily Spinney’s relationship with his wife, which seems almost too idyllic to be true.
The man himself is engaging when he talks on camera and the talking heads, which include other Sesame Street puppeteers and, of course, Frank Oz, reveal somebody comfortable with his own company and who didn’t always fit with the group, but who formed strong friendships, especially with Jim Henson, and had an intuitive understanding of children.
The one thing that lets the film down is the horribly cheesy soundtrack, which sounds like it’s been lifted off the shelf. It does nothing to complement what’s happening on the screen and, at times, is just downright irritating.
Thankfully Spinney’s story has enough interest and warmth to distract you from the music, although beware the moments when it gets into sentimental territory. It’s inevitable, given the subject matter, and you will get lump in your throat. Just make sure that box of tissues is within reach.
I Am Big Bird is currently available on demand and on DVD from 1 June.