If you were ever a child, chances are you were closely acquainted with an eight foot tall yellow bird that lives on 123 Sesame Street. From the very beginning of the show in 1969, Carroll Spinney has been the voice and puppeteer for Big Bird and this documentary by Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker tells the story behind the man who has played this cultural icon for 43 years.
The life story of Carroll Spinney is covered here from his lonely childhood with his strict father, to his post-school enrollment with the Air Force to his involvement with Jim Henson and the Muppet show which got him a place on a little show called Sesame Street, a program that seems to be a mandatory part of childhood. Spinney’s life as presented is a perfectly likable assembly line of moments that revolve around Big Bird. Now in the early stages of his retirement, he is passing on the cowl to other young puppeteers and enjoying the pleasures of his artworks.
I Am Big Bird wears its heart on its giant, feathered sleeve, this is the kind of documentary that it’s very easy to be cynical about. Spinney seems like a very nice man who adores his wife, loves his job, brings joy to millions of rascally children every day and doesn’t seem to have a single negative thing to say about anything or anyone. The obvious question that then follows is: Why make a documentary about him, what unique insight can you gain by watching? While there isn’t a whole lot that stays with you after leaving the theater, there is nothing wrong with a film aiming to simply tell an enjoyable tale and put a smile on your face.
That said; there is one dark turn that seems to come out of nowhere. In 2006 a young jogger named Judy was brutally murdered outside the Spinney household by the gardener they had recently employed. But the main reason this story is included seems to be that the poor girl’s father is interviewed, who reveals that he later got in touch with Spinney and his wife, and now have share a mutual friendship. Yes, this is a film of such innocent joy that it can find the silver lining in a horrific murder.
Carroll Spinney seems like a perfectly polite and nice man, and he’s living proof of the adage that if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life. There’s a point half way through, during a talking-head interview with Spinney’s wife when she says “He really just wants to be liked”, which pretty much sums up this documentary as well.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is screening at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival, and opens in Australian cinemas later in the year.