Overview: A career spanning, independent documentary feature on the life, career, and artistry of Muppeteer Caroll Spinney, specifically focusing on his Big Bird character from the children’s television program Sesame Street. Tribeca Film; 2015; Not Rated; 90 minutes.
The Man: In Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s film on Carroll Spinney, the puppeteer, performer, and artist who is Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, the quiet beauty of the man behind two of the biggest characters in original, children’s television programming of all time is given the viewer’s full attention. In LaMattina and Walker’s film, Big Bird is seen as an extension of Spinney’s personality, and vice versa. In I Am Big Bird, Spinney’s strivings towards being seen as an artist echo the viewer’s own most personally held and sought after goals in a socially shared, perpetuation of our individually projected, public images of ourselves. Images, moreover, that are reflective of how we want to be seen culturally, while being representative of how we wish to be understood personally. In Spinney’s case, the Big Bird character for which he became most widely known and recognized was a stroke of blind luck and pure genius, Jim Henson’s innate understanding of Spinney’s latent talent and budding humanism in the late 1960’s giving rise to a career in puppetry that has served to best encapsulate Spinney’s individual talent in a way that has proven reflective of his personal soul.
The Bird: Over the course of the film’s 90-minute runtime, LaMattina and Walker tactfully articulate just what it is that made the Big Bird character so essential to Sesame Street’s initial line up of original characters in 1969, and why it is a character that still matters forty years on, and counting. From Big Bird’s humble beginnings as an awkward, scrawny caricature of what the character has become, I Am Big Bird documents the evolution of Spinney’s story as it is seen through his work on Sesame Street. Through his close working relationships with Muppet figurehead Jim Henson, as well as original Muppeteer Frank Oz, Spinney blossomed creatively, and led a life reflective of the optimism and tender hearted effervescence of Spinney’s most lovable, avian alter ego. Reflective of the film’s title, LaMattina and Walker postulate the Big Bird character as a worldview reflective of its performer, Spinney’s example set as that infamous big, yellow Muppet one which the viewer will want to follow, all of us figuratively, and perhaps practically, wishing to fill Spinney’s big orange pants in our own lives.
The Artist: For an individual who has spent much of his life objectively behind the scenes, Spinney’s career is subjectively intriguing. As a Muppeteer who had a deeply personal relationship with the late Jim Henson, Spinney’s glimpses offered of Sesame Street date back to its inception during a time of civic and social unrest domestically, which ironically gave birth to one of the most communally healing and nationalistically countercultural movements in the history of American television. In characters like Big Bird, artists such as Spinney, Henson, and Oz were able to give voice to an alternative view of the world, one rooted in the innocence of a child-like perspective tempered by an adult nostalgia for the former. At the dawn of the 1970’s, Sesame Street maintained the aesthetic gestalt and wonder of the 1960’s into perpetuity, but matured with the times in terms of its intellectual grasp of human tragedy and loss, which has served Spinney in his performance as Big Bird, a character that has loomed lovingly over our collective, creative subconscious ever since, Spinney the singular artist that gave birth to one of our modern media culture’s greatest children.
Overall: In its compilation of archival footage and talking head interviews from the past forty years, Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s I Am Big Bird is an independent documentary feature that is entirely indispensable, as it sheds a light on one of television’s true auteurs, Carroll Spinney, also known as Big Bird.