Last month, the Caroll Spinney documentary I Am Big Bird was picked up for distribution by Tribeca Film, with plans for a theatrical and on-demand release in early 2015. While you wait impatiently for the movie to come to your city or your TV, here’s my review!
Early in I Am Big Bird, there’s a scene of Caroll Spinney preparing to shoot a scene on Sesame Street. After walking from his dressing room to the set in those bright orange legs, he puts on the top half of Big Bird, with some help from an assistant. I know a lot of people have a reflexive negative reaction to seeing what happens behind the scenes with Muppets, and especially to seeing the puppeteers. But this moment in the film is evidence of the magic of Muppets — one second, this big yellow thing is a lifeless, empty puppet. Then Spinney settles in, and the next second, there’s Big Bird, a fully animated, living character, looking around and greeting people on the set. This is a terrific argument in favor of seeing the puppeteer, and in fact, the entire movie is a terrific argument for seeing as much of the puppeteer as possible.
At 80 years old, Caroll Spinney has had an extraordinary life, and 45 years of it have been spent working on one of the most significant TV shows in history. That’s a lot of material for one movie, and one of the most basic challenges facing the filmmakers must been how to tell the story effectively and efficiently. For much of the film, they do this by letting Caroll tell us his own story. Unlike the Kevin Clash documentary Being Elmo, with its scripted third-person narration by an omniscient Whoopi Goldberg, I Am Big Bird uses Caroll’s voice relating his own biography as he remembers it.
Caroll also helped the directors tell his story by way of decades’ worth of film and video footage. Apparently, he’s something of a home movie nut, and he’s recorded zillions of hours of footage of everything from vacations to Sesame Street productions to family times at home — there’s even a few brief seconds from the set of Muppet Family Christmas. Being able to see these moments in living, moving color makes lesser documentaries with their still photo “Ken Burns effect” look like birdseed. I’m not sure what I mean by that, but it sounds good for a Big Bird movie.
Occasionally, short animated visuals fill in the gaps where no actual footage was available, which provides a fresh way to experience a few of Caroll’s anecdotes that you and I have heard before. (The cab driver whose “Where to, Mac?” became the basis for Oscar’s voice comes to life nicely when rendered as a cartoon character.) There are actually very few gaps, though. There’s so much footage, from Caroll’s young adulthood, from his early TV work on the Bozo show, and Spinney fans are going to eat it all up.
When the film gets to the part where Sesame Street is established as a big hit and Big Bird is a bigger star than Elvis, the movie becomes somewhat episodic, more a series of vignettes than a continuous narrative. But that’s okay, because it’s all fascinating, from the making of Big Bird in China to the time something went horribly wrong with Caroll’s wireless microphone during a live appearance with the Sesame cast. There’s usually some kind of thematic segue in the transition from one segment to another, and most of them are pretty seamless.
The one constant through all of this is Caroll’s wife, Debra. The directors have said I Am Big Bird is actually a love story, and that relationship really is the heart of the movie. Debra appears in the film almost as much as Caroll does, and the depth of their love for each other is almost enough to melt a grouch’s heart.
Which is not to say the film is a 100% feel-good affair. It acknowledges the weird tension that existed between Caroll and Sesame producer/director Jon Stone (although no one is able to explain it), and it covers his rocky relationship with his often volatile father. During the section on the beginning of Sesame Street, Caroll expresses his feelings of failure during the first season, a sequence which also sheds new light on fans’ curiosity about his transition away from playing Anything Muppets: Basically, he was extremely nervous doing bits with Jim and Frank, but it turned out he was really, really good at playing Big Bird and Oscar, so everyone agreed the best thing for him to do was focus on those two characters.
But for the most part, it is a feel-good story. In fact, if I have one criticism, it’s that at times, the film is overbearingly feel-good. When they mixed the music for the film, somebody must have been sitting on the “HUGE, SWELLING STRINGS” button. Caroll’s story is inspiring enough on its own, but the score practically grabs you by the collar, gets right in your face and shouts, “THIS IS INSPIRING!” It’s a bit much after a while.
Wait, I thought of another criticism! There’s no sign of Shivers the Penguin in the entire movie! What were they thinking?!
But Sesame Street fans of all kinds will find a lot to love in this documentary. For those who have read Caroll’s memoir The Wisdom of Big Bird, the film fleshes out several familiar stories with actual footage and interviews with people like Frank Oz, Bob McGrath, Loretta Long, Jerry Nelson, and Matt Vogel. And for those who go into the film not knowing that Oscar used to be orange, the film is full of information and Sesame Street lore. A sequence about “how Big Bird works” elegantly combines a lesson in puppetry with input from Big Bird understudy Matt Vogel, whose affection and sense of awe for Caroll is apparent.
I Am Big Bird is a lovely film about a lovely man. It doesn’t have a lot of conflict, but the main point it wants to make is that Caroll Spinney is a person worth knowing about, a person who has had a remarkable life and career. It provides plenty of proof of that, while also giving us plenty of occasions to laugh at cry and marvel. It’s a good thing someone decided to make a documentary about Caroll Spinney, and it’s a good thing he is Big Bird.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com