A review of a documentary about Caroll Spinney, the voice — and soul — of “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
“When he steps into the bird, he’s the bird, and when he steps out, he’s Caroll, and there’s very little difference.” That’s “Sesame Street” colleague Bob McGrath, speaking about Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who created (and still voices) Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch more than 45 years ago. “I Am Big Bird,” a documentary as gentle and sweet as the soft-voiced Spinney’s non-puppet persona, takes us through the now-81-year-old Spinney’s journey, showing us how the man and the bird are intertwined.
Spinney, who overcame a difficult childhood with a sometimes violent father, loved puppets since childhood; “Sesame Street,” which premiered in 1969, was a dream job. But, as we learn in the film, he almost walked away after the first year, feeling that the Big Bird character — initially conceived by Jim Henson as a goofy yokel — wasn’t going anywhere, and that he didn’t fit in. One day, a revelation came to Spinney. “I think he should be a kid,” he decided, of Big Bird — and the rest is history.
Though its gooey, sentimental soundtrack is a misstep — this story is quite sweet enough already — “I Am Big Bird” is mesmerizing for anyone (and that’s a lot of us) who grew up with “Sesame Street.” It’s a kick seeing Spinney in costume, or in his frequent rehearsal garb of suspender’d Big Bird pants over a T-shirt. We meet his longtime stand-in, Matt Vogel (whose last name means bird in German, Spinney notes in wonder), who’s spent years patiently waiting to take over the yellow suit; and the love of Spinney’s life, his ever-smiling wife, Debra. And we watch — I defy you to stay dry-eyed — when Spinney, as Big Bird, wistfully sings “Bein’ Green” at Henson’s funeral.
Movie Review ★★★
‘I Am Big Bird,’ a documentary directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker. 87 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. SIFF Film Center.
“I Am Big Bird,” ultimately, is the story of a man who’s lived his life doing what he loves best, surrounded by friends. It’s understandable that he’s reluctant to let go of the beloved character he’s created, even as it becomes more difficult to manage the physical demands of Big Bird. “He’s my child, and some day he’ll be adopted,” notes a rueful Spinney in the film. “I don’t own him or anything, but I own his soul.”
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