I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is an affecting documentary that tells the story of the man responsible for two of Sesame Street‘s most popular characters: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. The popularity of the characters rested on Spinney’s ability to create three-dimensional personalities that spoke to children’s feelings of confusion, insecurity, curiosity, and displeasure. Big Bird especially launched Spinney’s career and turned him into a folk hero among puppeteers. The documentary shows the beginnings of these characters and how Spinney was able to flesh them out into recognizable icons of children’s entertainment. The film also goes into Spinney’s life, which was marked by abuse, bullying, and contemplation of suicide. Though a generally enjoyable film, I Am Big Bird is also a very sad one.
Like many artists – particularly artists who work with children – Spinney’s childhood was wretched. Though gifted with a supportive and wonderful mother, his father was an abusive tyrant. His interest in puppets from a young age made him a target for schoolyard bullies who taunted him. His adulthood wasn’t that much better: an emotionally abusive first marriage almost drove the man to suicide. All of this context makes watching Sesame Street all the more poignant, especially when looking at Big Bird, arguably Spinney’s greatest creation.
What makes Big Bird so relatable is that he’s an everychild. Children learn about the harshness of the world and all of its confusion through Big Bird’s perspective. The show is able to impart some important life lessons using the 8-foot tall Muppet, by addressing important issues, but unpacking them as a child would. It’s important to note, that never does Big Bird talk down to children – one of the greatest things about Sesame Street is that it assumes the audience is bright and intelligent. Spinney, along with the group of gifted writers, has created an instrument for children to process the world around them.
In I Am Big Bird, the audiences see some of that building of character. We see early incarnations of Big Bird that make him almost unrecognizable. We also see the tedious and physical work Spinney has to do to be Big Bird – this includes strapping on a tiny monitor, putting on the suit, and keeping his arm raised over his head to operate Big Bird’s beak and head. A marvel of graceful aging, at over 80, Spinney is still doing a lot of the work (though some of it is supplemented by “apprentice” Matt Vogel). All of this minutia and details is interesting because it shows just how committed Spinney is to his craft.
And though the bulk of the film is focused on Spinney, the film also looks at the iconography of Big Bird and how that changed Spinney’s life. Before the rambunctious red-furred Elmo, Big Bird was Sesame Street. There is archival footage of Big Bird touring the country and performing at state fairs, opera houses, and theaters. The human cast of Sesame Street also add some valuable insight to the popularity of Big Bird, and attest to the cultural phenomenon Big Bird became. The actors – including Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado, and Loretta Long – all offer fun and sentimental memories of going on the road with Big Bird. They also join the chorus of folks who sing the praises of Spinney, who not only is a great artist, but a very popular guy to work with.
Because of its subject matter, some may want to watch I Am Big Bird with their children. I’d caution those folks, because as lovely and as wonderful as the film is, it’s also very sad. It feels like every passage in the film somehow slips into a tear-jerking moment. Because Spinney’s life was so difficult, his vulnerability imbues the film almost as much as it did his characters. We watch as Spinney struggles with depression, or when he butts heads with directors, or when he mourns the passing of his dear friend Jim Henson. In one particularly harrowing sequence, Spinney describes an awful moment when during one of his appearances as Big Bird, he left the costume with a group of ROTC cadets during a lunch break, only to discover that the kids maimed, plucked, and destroyed his beloved alter ego (he went so far as to compare it to a rape of a child – an assertion that the filmmakers should have questioned and pushed but didn’t). The memory brought fresh tears to his eyes.
The film moves toward a conclusion that leads with Big Bird’s gradual descent in popularity. To attract younger viewers and to keep up with changing TV viewership, Sesame Street shifted its focus and tweaked its format, highlighting Elmo at the expense of Big Bird. These slights cannot be easy for a man as committed to his work as Spinney, and some of the cast members sympathize with the man – McGrath, who has also been steadily marginalized, likened his late work on the show as a hobby – and it’s clear that the film is leading its viewers to Spinney’s eventual retirement. It’s heartening to see that despite his age, Spinney seems remarkably spry, and still willing to do the physical work of being Big Bird.
Though there are some ugly moments in I Am Big Bird, the film works as a loving, respectful tribute to a man whose vision and talent has inspired, enlightened, and entertained millions of children for generations.