No negative thoughts, words or deeds intrude upon “I Am Big Bird,” Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker’s documentary about Caroll Spinney, the man behind the voice, walk, heart and soul of the beloved Sesame Street character for the last 45 years. But as endless processions of friends and colleagues attest to Spinney’s genius, and the filmmakers wallow in never-before-seen behind-the-scenes imagery, they fail to fully capture the actual art of puppeteering, with woefully few substantial excerpts from the show itself. Diehard Big Bird fans will delight in this treasure trove of intimate moments, but the pic’s relentless outpourings of affection might prove too saccharine for general consumption.
“I Am Big Bird” opens with clip from an old episode of “To Tell the Truth,” featuring three men who all claim to be “the real Caroll Spinney.” It sets up the dichotomy of the film; while Big Bird may qualify as one of the most universally recognized figures in the world, Spinney remains virtually unknown. Yet, as the film spends an inordinate amount of time illustrating, there is little difference between the bird and the man. Copious homemovie footage finds him cavorting around the house as it charts his fairy-tale romance with his second wife, Debra. Innumerable behind-the-scenes glimpses follow Spinney/Big Bird from the Sesame Street set to the Great Wall of China. It becomes undeniable that the childlike wonder and guileless joie de vivre that animates the bird is that of Spinney himself — this, despite the fact that Spinney’s other masterpiece of Muppet manipulation was Oscar the Grouch.
Certainly Spinney’s bio offers its fair share of variety, humor and drama. His work in very early television on his own puppet show and subsequent tenure at “Bozo’s Big Top,” where he created several memorable supporting characters (seen in brief excerpts), is as revelatory of the fledgling nature of the medium as it is of Spinney’s talent. Even his courtship of Debra makes for diverting viewing, as Spinney asked out three different women over a period of months, only to discover they were all one and the same. On a more somber note, Big Bird was scheduled to fly on the ill-fated Challenger Space Shuttle to interest children in America’s space program. Spinney accepted, but it was decided there was not sufficient room, and ultimately teacher Christa McAuliffe took his place.
But surely the most fascinating aspect of the documentary concerns the complicated low-tech human mechanics through which Spinney controls the wonderfully expressive movements of the giant yellow bird. Inside a costume of some 4,000 feathers, Spinney has no contact with the outside world. He can only see indirectly through a video monitor strapped to his chest, and must navigate the set quasi-remotely and counterintuitively (his right is the camera’s left). One of Spinney’s arms must remain continually extended to hold up the neck and head, with his hand manipulating the beak and his other hand moving the wings and controlling the eyelids, while he reads the script taped to his body. To do all this while acting up a storm through line readings and subtle eye and body movements requires an incredible amount of skill and coordination. That Spinney continue to do it into his 80s seems well-nigh miraculous.
This puppeteering mastery is all too rarely on display: Shots of Spinney drawing and painting accompany other interviewees’ insistence that he’s a great artist, but their opinions must taken on faith. The few extended scenes sampled, including his moving song at Jim Henson’s funeral, bring home what otherwise remains empty praise. With so many years of puppetry to draw from, helmers LaMattina and Walker seem content to take the essence of their subject’s art for granted while milking his private life for all it’s worth.