I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY
Directors: Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker
Running Time: 1:27
Release Date: 5/6/15 (limited); 5/15/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 15, 2015
Gene Siskel had a simple test for gauging a movie: Is it more interesting than a documentary about the actors having lunch would be? There's a certain type of documentary that seems to take that test to heart, and I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is one of them. You know the sort: the ones about a person's life and career in which the filmmakers interview the person and people who know the subject, as they sit in front of the camera to tell stories about the past and the kind of person they believe the subject is. The only thing that's missing is the lunch.
The idea of these documentaries—at least as I see them—is to give us something akin to the experience of having a casual, pleasant conversation with the movie's subject and the people who know him/her over lunch or coffee. They regale us with anecdotes about their experiences—the everyday routine, the famous folks who have crossed their paths, the little lessons they have learned along the way that now become advice. We laugh and smile, sometimes because the tales are genuinely interesting and others because it's just polite. At times, a tough time becomes the subject of conversation, and there's a hush as the people try to get through the sadder reminiscences as quickly as possible.
The filmmakers are in an awkward position, serving as both surrogates for the audience—in terms of trying to guess at the sort of things we would ask in a hypothetical conversation-over-lunch situation—and moderators for the discussion—in terms of determining its shape and path in the editing room. What they think is important and what we think is important could be entirely different. For example, if I were fortunate enough to sit down with Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) on the PBS children's program "Sesame Street" since the show's beginning, my first question for him would be, to me, the obvious one: How do you work the suit?
That query is way down on the list of directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker's concerns, although we do learn the process of performing a full-body puppet through a helpful animation. It turns out that it's a complicated and painstaking task: the performer's arm outstretched to operate the mouth, a single pinky finger manipulating a pull-string with five pounds of resistance to work the eyelids, a TV monitor strapped to the chest so that the performer can see, and the script taped to the inside of the suit.
At the time the movie was filmed, Spinney was approaching 80 (He will be 82 by the end of this year). Despite having to walk hunched over while in the Big Bird costume and experiencing burning pain in his arm, he says he has no plans of retiring.
Spinney comes across as a good, humble, and devoted man. He loves his second wife Debra, who follows him everywhere. His daughter says that people assume the couple is faking it, because they believe it's just not possible for two people to be so in love with each other. Even though he was routinely absent from his children's lives while they were growing up, he made every moment with them count, and they say they have nothing but good memories of their time with him. Spinney's professional colleagues praise him. He's a hard-working, dedicated guy—one of few of the original cast members of the show still working on it. There are plenty of archival footage and photographs to show how much he has accomplished.
This is nice, and it's always at least slightly inspiring to see and hear from someone who appears to have it all together—work, family, hobbies, an overall sense of well-being. These observations, though, are the extent of what the movie has to say about Spinney.
Yes, we learn of his abusive father, with whom he reconciled later in life (It is odd how the movie introduces this part of his life as a way to shift to another tragedy, never to return to the father again). We hear about a period after his divorce in which he describes depression and suicidal thoughts. Yes, he was almost on the Space Shuttle Challenger at the request of NASA, which wanted kids to become more interested in space travel, but he avoided that tragedy because the shuttle wouldn't accommodate his suit. Jim Henson's sudden death was a serious, unexpected blow.
The movie breezes through this information with some unsubstantial commentary from the interviewees, although, to be fair, it covers the rest of Spinney's life with the same kind of breakneck pace and routine assemblage of interviews, too. We get the surface of who this man is, but—and perhaps this is a testament to the man himself—we want to know more. The filmmakers seem to be working on the assumption that becoming mildly acquainted with Spinney will be enough—that the movie will succeed just by being in his presence. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, though, just leaves us wishing for a bit more than the experience of a light conversation over lunch.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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