Caroll Spinney is the iron man of children’s entertainment — or, to be more specific, the iron bird. He is the only Muppeteer to perform regularly onSesame Street since the show’s debut in 1969. To put that in perspective, of the core five Sesame Street Muppeteers Richard Hunt, Jim Henson, andJerry Nelson have all passed away and Frank Ozhas been in semi-retirement from the Muppets since the 1990s and only occasionally returns to perform his characters. Furthermore, Spinney portrays one of the show’s most physical characters, Big Bird. And if all that wasn’t impressive enough, Caroll Spinney will be turning 81 on December 26 and has no plans to retire — despite handpicking a patient understudy,Matt Vogel, back in 1998.
I Am Big Bird tells the story behind the man who brings Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life. Spinney has worked as a puppeteer in show business since the 1950s, and his extraordinary story reveals how Big Bird allowed him to travel the world and touch children’s lives in nearly every country for over five decades. The documentary reveals Spinney’s personal life with hundreds of hours of home movies that Spinney and his wife Debra Spinney have shot, including his surprisingly turbulent childhood and his unhappiness with working on Sesame Street in its earliest years and living in New York City. However, it becomes clear that although the Big Bird character will live on long after Spinney finally retires, it is impossible to separate Spinney and Big Bird’s personalities.
As someone who grew up watching Sesame Street and is fascinated by the characters Jim Henson created, I Am Big Bird is also one of the most in-depth explorations of Sesame Street through the lens of Spinney. One of the most poignant moments of the documentary is when speaks about Henson’s death and performing as Big Bird at the memorial service. Frank Oz (one of the many Muppet performers interviewed for the film) expresses how he still doesn’t like to think about the memorial. It’s incredible to realize the impact that Henson had on the lives of the Muppet performers — they owe their fames and fortunes to Henson. Another difficult moment is a scene of the aged Spinney and Nelson on the set ofSesame Street speaking about how many of their former coworkers have passed away. Nelson himself died in 2012, and I Am Big Bird features some of his final interview footage (it also includes audio recorded by Jane Henson, Jim’s wife, shortly before her death in 2013).
Interestingly, the documentary explores Big Bird’s diminished role on Sesame Street in favor of Elmo in the mid-1990s as the program began to be aimed at even younger audiences. For those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was clear that Big Bird had been replaced as the show’s central character when Elmo became the focus in media appearances and merchandise. The change corresponded with Vogel being hired as Spinney’s understudy, yet Big Bird (and Spinney) remains a key part of the program. Some people interviewed (even the cast and crew) express that Sesame Street lost something when it switched from Big Bird to Elmo, yet Spinney seems happy to just still be part of it.
At only 90 minutes, one of the drawbacks of I Am Big Bird is that much of Spinney’s history withSesame Street from 1970 to today is told in terms of his biggest hits — the movies, the major appearances, and so forth. We don’t quite get a whole look at a day in the life of playing Big Bird, though we get glimpses of it. Of course, as the title of the documentary implies Spinney’s other major character, Oscar, takes a backseat despite offering another side of Spinney’s personality. Seeing Spinney contrast between the childlike sweetness of Big Bird and Oscar’s, well, grouchiness, would have added even more to the documentary.
Though Spinney intends to stay with Big Bird as long as he is physically able (and will likely stick with Oscar even after he is no longer playing Big Bird), it’s hard to see I Am Big Bird as anything else but the final statement on Spinney’s remarkable career. In that sense, I Am Big Bird carries more emotional punch than 2011′s Being Elmo. Co-directors Chad N. Walker and Dave LaMattina have delved deep into the life of a man whom is beloved all over the world despite hardly ever seen. Not surprisingly, who Spinney actually is as a person is not much different than the character he has portrayed for almost fifty years.
RATING: A must-see for any Muppet fan (8.5/10)