I AM BIG BIRD is a gentle, sensitive film about a gentle, sensitive man. The man is Caroll Spinney, known to perhaps a billion people as his alter ego, Big Bird, on Sesame Street, but revealed here as the creative force as both a master puppeteer and as an actor willing to bury himself, literally, in a character that is a reflection of himself.
Following the philosophy of Sesame Street itself, that of telling the truth, but not being harsh, the doc by David LaMattina and Chad N. Walker does not overlook the dark places in Spinney’s history, that include an abusive father and a depression so dark that is might have stopped Spinney before he made his professional breakthrough. Those moments, though, are used, for lack of a better term, as the sort of meaningful teaching moments found on the television series. The lessons to be learned are clear, but never coldly didactic. We are left to discover them ourselves as Spinney’s history from 5-year-old enchanted by a puppet show to the bittersweet pleasure in finding an apprentice who can let Big Bird carry on even when Spinney himself no longer can.
Not that he’s ready to retire even at his age (72), a decision made even more impressive by one of the most intriguing parts of the documentary. That would be letting us all in on the secret of Big Bird’s inner workings, a decidedly low-tech system of pulleys, levers, and a monitor that sits inside the 8-foot costume so that Spinney can see what’s happening around him. Suddenly, the bouncing on a trampoline becomes a stunt worthy of a big-budget action film, but done in the service of making smiles, not gasps.
Spinney is also, ironically, Oscar the Grouch, a puppet far less difficult to operate, and one that allows Spinney’s grumpier side to come out. Yet, it’s a side that grumpy, never evil, a testament to the vision of both Spinney and his mentor, later boss and friend, Muppet creator Jim Henson. That they met at all, much less joined forced, is the stuff of the synchronicity that has propelled Spinney’s life, from getting into television by joining the Air Force to get away from his unhappy home life, to the way his soul mate, Debra, kept crossing his path until she agreed to go out with him.
The high points of Spinney’s life as Big Bird are covered, including the groundbreaking trip to China once the Bamboo Curtain fell, as well as lesser known, but no less important moments as told by family, friends, and Spinney himself. The reunion after 30 years with the now-adult actress who played his kid sidekick in 1983’s BIG BIRD IN CHINA, will almost certainly cause you to get a little misty, while the story of what an ROTC squad did to the Big Bird costume out of a misplaced expression of fandom will disconcert, at the very least.
A celebration like I AM BIG BIRD is usually done as a eulogy, full of warmth and personal remembrance, but too late for us to appreciate the person being honored while he or she is still with us. It makes for a sweetly refreshing experience, rather than a bittersweet one, to have the privilege of meeting a man so genuinely kind, so heartwarmingly childlike in his enthusiasm, and, like the film, so devoid of cynicism or bitterness.