Caroll Spinney’s story is that of romance, of overwhelming joy, emotions, beauty, and most of all, innocence. For those too young to remember a time before the Tickle-Me-Elmo craze, Big Bird ruled supreme. The break-out star of Sesame Street and a towering icon of 20th century Americana, Big Bird represented something beautiful and joyous in our childhoods, a time when our limits were to the corner of the neighboring streets, but we knew each pavement inside and out, and each neighbor like family members.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story breezes by in 90 ethereal, dream-like minutes, and using hundreds of hours of home footage shot by Caroll Spinney and his wife Deborah, feels more like nostalgic memories of a beloved family member than a slick documentary about an entertainment icon. Indeed, the intimacy expressed in the film feels so genuine, comes off so touching, that one can’t help but feel as if they’ve known Caroll Spinney their entire lives. Indeed we have, as my generation and the generations between mine have grown up with Big Bird, and subsequently Caroll Spinney. The two individuals being one and the same, with the same personality, the same outlooks on life, and the same love and devotion for his fellow man.
The interesting thing about this film is its ability to run through the history of the Muppets, of Sesame Street, of Jim Henson, and Spinney’s work in the entertainment industry, but keep its focus on Caroll Spinney himself – not the works he’s participated in, but the relationships he’s gained and lost. Rather than recalling the arduous production of Big Bird in China, the film documents the affection that Caroll and his wife grew towards the little girl who played Xiao Foo in the film, which pays off when he tearfully reunites with her after thirty years.
Throughout the film, I found myself wondering, how could a man so emotionally complex, so complicated and lonely, who so easily wears his heart on his sleeve be so innocent and gentle, joyful and child-like at the same time? It wasn’t that Caroll Spinney simply channeled the purity of Big Bird or snark of Oscar the Grouch; rather, he used his ability to relive his powerful emotions to give a wholly genuine performance each and every time. A romantic who often blurred the line between past and present, we see Caroll tearfully recall the strained relationship with his father and first wife, the insufferable bullying as a child, and the death of Jim Henson.
The familiarity while watching I Am Big Bird comes not only from our memories of Sesame Street and the impact that Big Bird had on us, but also from our ability to relate to Caroll Spinney and the life he puts out, either as himself or as his characters. Caroll represents the best of humanity – our passion, our drive, our tender moments, our solitary ones, our love, our affection, but most of all, he represents our sincerity, and our ability to aspire and create, live and enjoy.