I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is exactly that, a portrait of the man that is inside of the big yellow bird. But like the title suggests, there is no costume change that makes this man different, he is Big Bird and Big Bird is Caroll and that is a rare and beautiful thing to watch on screen.
The documentary is very straightforward, taking a look at his life before Sesame Street and then what happened after he was assigned the bird. We find out that he became inspired by puppetry at an early age and by the time he was eight he was performing with his own puppets. But like most people that have worked with Jim Henson, the magic happened once Jim scouted him at a puppetry convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. From then, he was given two iconic characters - Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Surprisingly, this opportunity was not always the easiest. Both of these characters were isolating. The way that Big Bird functions as a puppet is difficult; the head is controlled by one arm and hand while one of the wings is the other hand. Awkward in both weight and visibility, the only way to see and interact with other characters on set is through a video monitor that is attached to Caroll’s chest in the costume. Oscar is almost always obstructed by a trash can or a box, separating Caroll from interacting with the other puppets and puppeteers.
Then Big Bird became a cultural phenomenon. Children and parents embraced the big yellow bird as an icon of trust, allowing Big Bird to teach kids through his own experiences. As a character, Big Bird was a child, experiencing the world for the first time and allowing others to help him. Underneath, Caroll was the adult that had those same qualities and presented a world which he saw.
Most telling in this documentary is the kind of man that Caroll is. He cries on screen when he talks of terrible tragedy in his life - Jim Henson passing or when there is a terrible murder that happens on his property. And then he cries when talking about the great joys in his life, as if the world overstimulates him, making him susceptible to all feelings, at all times. As one of the few original cast members left on the show, he remains realistic about what he can and cannot perform and sincerely is pleased with his understudy who will ultimately take over the role. Caroll is truly an artist and watching him work as both of his characters reflect him so clearly .
Just when we think that Big Bird is not longer relevant or we have grown out of such childlike shows and lessons, we are reminded of how important he is. Not too long ago Mitt Romney threatened to stop funding to PBS. The media frenzy around it brought Big Bird back to all of late-night television, parodied in the news, and making an appearance on Saturday Night Live, proving that he is in the hearts and minds of everyone and is going nowhere.
Puppets come to life with movement, animation, and voice, and Carol has worked as both Big Bird and Oscar for over 40 years. What is clear on screen is how much the character and the man are one in the same. Caroll became Big Bird and the bird rubbed off on him, making it seem rather strange when we think about him not being in the suit, but for now, we can be reassured that the bird is Caroll and Caroll is the character that we know and love. He has created a character that will last generations.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is making its way around the festival circuit. Be sure to check it out if you get a chance. If not, be sure to catch it in theaters.