Film Review: I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (USA, 2015)

Like the titular feathered character, I am Big Bird: the Carroll Spinney Story is big-hearted, filled with love and curiosity. This documentary by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker explores the life and times of the man inside the big yellow bird that has been a joyful part of an inestimable number of childhoods over the past forty-odd years since Sesame Street first graced television screens way back in 1969. Despite creating one of the most loved and recognisable characters across the world, Spinney himself is little known outside professional circles. LaMattina and Walker, with the incredible video archive of Spinney and his wife, Debra, at their disposal, set about painting a loving portrait of the man inside the bird.

Spotted by Jim Henson and asked to join the Sesame Street cast, Spinney has been inside Big Bird (as well as acting as the puppeteer for the slightly less lovable Oscar the Grouch) from the outset. Although not Spinney’s first role in the entertainment business, the opportunity to work with the mercurial Henson represented an initially daunting prospect for him. However, it emerges in the course of the documentary that his peers always considered him an incredibly talented and devoted performer.

This is an endearing documentary filled with adoration for the big yellow bird and the man within. It works best when it delves into the minutiae of Spinney’s life inside the bird, including exploring the physical demands of working inside the costume and the manner in which the character developed. Contemporaneous footage provides authenticity to the reflections of people recounting events years in the past. The images of Big Bird wandering down the streets of Beijing pursued by an enormous crowd and along the Great Wall of China are remarkable, the footage of Spinney’s performance as Big Bird at Henson’s funeral in 1990 heartbreakingly powerful.

There is certainly a sense of art imitating life to the extent that the prevailing image of Carroll is of a supremely good-natured and humble man. Similarly, the genuineness of his and his wife’s relationship is ably conveyed. However, the portions of the film that concern Spinney’s life outside the suit want for a greater sense of cohesion as a result of some puzzling choices of focus. Certain anecdotes and asides receive undue prominence and ultimately prove distracting. In addition, some of the contributions from interviewees suffer from generality – praise is occasionally heaped on Spinney without much insight into the reasons for it.

Ultimately, unless you’re Mitt Romney, this is a documentary that will warm the cockles. Whenever Big Bird is on screen, there is a palpable sense of wonderment and therein lies the genius of Spinney’s creation. As much as it a case of Spinney being inside Big Bird, it is equally a case of Big Bird being an expression of something within Spinney. Indeed, within all of us.


Season opens July 30th Cinema Nova and Chauvel Sydney.

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