Looking at the life of the man inside the costume of one of children’s TV’s most iconic characters.
Sesame Street was an integral part of my childhood. Despite me being British, and so culturally far removed from the show, it had an omnipresence that made it impossible to avoid in the 1970s. But I hadn’t thought about it very much since that time – I was just about aware that, amazingly, it is still being made, but I probably don’t have the same emotional attachment to the show that Americans do, even though I seem to remember watching it daily at one time. Still, the influence of the show, from The Muppets to every other Jim Henson production, is undeniable, and perhaps the most iconic character on Sesame Street was Big Bird, the large, yellow, child-like bird of dubious origin.
Inside the Big Bird costume since 1969 – that’s 49 years until his retirement in 2018! – has been one man, Carroll Spinney, and this charming documentary sets out to tell his story as well as the story of his most famous character (he also played, in contrast to the optimistic Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, who of course was my favourite character in the show – clearly, I’ve always been a curmudgeon!).
Spinney’s story is the stuff of sentimental legend – the son of an abusive father, he buried himself in puppetry as an escape from a life of bullying and not fitting in, eventually being discovered and offered a job by Henson, who had just launched Sesame Street. Wracked with insecurity and still feeling like an outsider, he was on the verge of quitting – and after a marital breakdown, had contemplated suicide – when Big Bird came along and saved him. He met a fellow employee who he fell in love with and proposed to two weeks after their first date – and they are still married decades later, still seemingly inseparable. And Big Bird became more than just a character – he was an ambassador, an international icon (travelling to China before such things were really done) and the face of Sesame Street, all the while still seeming to be a bit of an outsider and an eccentric.
Documentary biopics often need a story arc and a conclusion to really work, or else they run the risk of being little more than a hagiography – the tedious Roger Ebert doc Life Itself is a good example of how a film can become frustrating if the subject is overly idolised, especially as you start to wonder what is being left out amongst all the praise. But Spinney’s story somehow transcends that. He’s obviously as nice a person as you could ever hope to meet – clearly loved by everyone and with good reason. Things take a dark turn when a handyman hired by Spinney kills a young woman, and yet even here, the innate kindness of Spinney and his wife Debra comes to the fore, and the family of the victim can’t speak highly enough of them. Even his apprentice, who has been waiting years for him to retire, is full of praise.
This story is told with the minimum of fuss by Dave Lamattina and Chad N. Walker, mixing interviews with archive footage. The pair are helped by the fact that Spinney seems to have filmed almost every moment of his life, giving them huge amounts of video and 8mm home movies to pick and choose from. The result is an unusually intimate study of a life.
If I Am Big Bird is capable of moving a grouch like me, then you can rest assured that this is genuinely sweet, emotional and charming stuff. It might not be a film of substance – though there is plenty of substance in anyone’s life really – but it is a thoroughly delightful, shamelessly heartfelt movie that will have you both beaming with joy and blubbing like a baby. It’s genuinely lovely and you should make a real effort to seek it out.
Caroll Spinney 1933 – 2019