Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes, Not Rated
Co-Written and Directed by Dave LaMattina & Chad N. Walker (Brownstones to Red Dirt)
One of the most unforgettable moments in TV history, for me, was watching Fred Rogers being given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Daytime Emmy Awards. Many from my generation grew up with his Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and watching the entire theater rise - celebrities old and young - and give what seemed like a minute-long standing ovation for this special man was truly memorable, and it reflected back the importance and the impact his work had on the youth of America. Of course, there are several sources of influence in a child's early development and upbringing, but for many, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and Sesame Street, are right there at the center of what can be recalled. Watching the new documentary film, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (opening today and available on VOD), I was reminded of Fred Rogers, though the film has absolutely nothing to do with him, or his TV show. It has to do with a man who may be equally influential, though I'd guess that few have ever heard of him. He is Caroll Spinney, who for nearly the past 50 years, has been the man inside the life-size suit we all know as Big Bird, and who at the age of 78, shows no signs of stopping
The film itself is a sugary-sweet, reverent look at this dedicated puppeteer, whose on-stage failure during a performance led to an introduction with Jim Henson himself. Henson invited him back, and soon after Big Bird was born. Perhaps one of the most iconic fictional characters in American TV history, the movie explores what life must be like behind the beak.
And there are several revelations, beginning with how the actual suit works. Did you know that there are no eye-holes in Big Bird, and that Spinney's arm - raised above his head - operates the Bird's mouth and eyebrows? That from inside the suit, Spinney has a monitor that shows him what the audience sees, and that's it. And on several occasions, Spinney attaches his lines to the inside, simultaneously choreographing each and every one of Big Bird's movements?
Perhaps most shocking of all, at the height of Big Bird's popularity, the idea was floated to send Big Bird into space. NASA ultimately decided against it, citing that the suit was too big to fit into their shuttle, so the plan was nixed. In Big Bird's place, a school teacher was selected to accompany the crew of the Challenger space shuttle in 1985...and we all remember the horrific outcome of that disastrous flight. As unthinkable as that was, imagine if millions of kids would have witnessed their hero, Big Bird, exploding in the sky.
The most interesting aspects of the film as that it gives us an inside glimpse behind-the-scenes at Sesame Street, with several original cast members appearing, all there to heap praise on Spinney. There is Roscoe Orman (who played Gordon), Sonia Manzano (Maria), Emilio Delgado (Luis) and Bob McGrath (Bob), along with famous puppeteers Frank Oz and the late Jerry Nelson (who most famously voiced The Count). Not much time is spent behind the curtain, and some tidbits that seemed worth exploring - like Spinney's ongoing clash with Sesame Street influential writer/director Jon Stone - are grazed over. But light is shed on Caroll Spinney himself, who was picked on as a child, ostricized by many of his peers, and raised by an abusive father, but who despite it all, makes up the heart and soul of one of the most endearing, loving and optimistic characters on television.
His "dark side" may be the explanation for Spinney's involvement with another famous character on Sesame Street, Oscar the Grouch. Spinney also supplies the voice and puppeteering for everyone's favorite trash can dwelling...creature...but it allows Spinney to express a not-so-sunny-side of himself. Both characters limit Spinney's interaction with others, in that he is confined inside a bird suit and/or a trash can apparatus while working. The interviews with others paint Spinney as a hard-working but distant loner, a man who hasn't revealed much about himself that isn't already permeating out of his characters.
Did I mention that this film is a bit reverent? It briefly goes into Big Bird's drop in popularity when the character Elmo was introduced, and when the show began skewing more towards two and three year-olds than the slightly older crowd. It probably correctly maintains that Big Bird is the heart and spirit of the show...he's a character that is still used to convey more serious issues with children (like when the show used Big Bird to help the audience deal with the death of original Sesame Street character, Mr. Hooper (Will Lee), who died suddenly of a heart attack in 1982). But it's probably a bit of a stretch to suggest that Mitt Romney failed at his Presidential bid, after making a reference to Big Bird in regards to defunding PBS (I'm sure it didn't help, but if you were to take the word of this documentary, it is the root cause).
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story does a fly-over of many areas that may have been ripe for dissection, but it seems content to just celebrate the near-anonymous contributions and mechinations of Caroll Spinney the man, juxtaposed with the fame that his iconic character has achieved. Caroll Spinney shares significance with Fred Rogers, if not name recognition and his story is a nostalgic, delightful, light-hearted stroll down memory lane...down a familiar street that has helped shape many of us. Big Bird really is Spinney, and it's a credit to this man's creation that, until now, we never even stopped to considered that Big Bird is just an outward expression of one man's soul...a man who we all have known for years without ever having known it.
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