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  I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story Weathers The FeathersBuy this film here.
Year: 2014
Director: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Stars: Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, Eric Jacobson, Sonia Manzano, Roscoe Orman, Dave Goelz, Emilio Delgado, Matt Vogel, Jerry Nelson, Alison Bartlett, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Judy Valentine, Cheryl Henson, Lianzi Ouyang
Genre: Documentary
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Ever since Caroll Spinney watched a puppet show as a child, he was so impressed that it set him on a course to his long-lasting career as a puppeteer, though that work means he is not often recognised for he spends all of his time on stage or on screen hidden beneath his puppets. Or should we say Muppets, as he met the creator of those cultural benchmarks Jim Henson when he was preparing to make television shows for the newly established Children's Television Workshop, a set up for public broadcasting that was in the late sixties something bold for the medium, designed to educate as well as entertain in a more modern parlance than ever before. So Caroll was hired by them, and the rest was history...

As the title informs you, one of the characters he was recruited for was Big Bird from Sesame Street, among the most enduring children's shows of all time, and one of the others was Oscar the Grouch, both of whom continued with Spinney performing them for decades, eventually becoming a true survivor of the style. This was a documentary brought about by a tremendous amount of goodwill, mainly from the fans of Sesame Street and those characters in particular as the directors asked them to put up a donation of their own money to fund the film; such was the feeling of affection towards its subject that they were happy to be a part of it and it was able to be completed.

It did mean that not a whole lot of budget was available, and you can see that when almost all of the running time was divided between talking heads and archive footage, though they did manage an appropriate ending to the story they had told, not to spoil anything. Those talking heads included Spinney himself of course, as well as his second wife and soulmate Debra and his offspring, but more familiar faces turned up as well, including his fellow Muppet performers such as Jerry Nelson, paying tribute before his death as this was in production, and more recent players like Matt Vogel, and also some of the actors who would appear on Sesame Street with him. Even Jim Henson himself was able to provide praise thanks to rare footage at a gathering of his team.

So if the mood was one of warm reminiscence for the most part, every so often something would happen that reminded you it was not all a bed of roses and into each and every life a little rain must fall. Spinney recalled his thoughts of suicide after his disastrous first marriage broke up, but it is implied the power of the Muppets was what kept him going, and that force for good those characters represent, that sense of inclusion and positivity laced with slight melancholy that it's not always going to go your way, or your friends' way, was something the directors did allow to inform the tone of the piece. At certain points they were a little too obvious in their designs on the viewers' tear ducts, however, the constant treacly music something of a distraction.

That said, there were other moments where it would take a heart of absolute granite not to be moved, such as the clip of Big Bird singing It's Not Easy Being Green at the very emotional funeral of Jim Henson; that Spinney managed to keep the performance together, his voice audibly cracking in places, was testament to his skill and a deeply affecting sequence. As was the famous clip of Big Bird learning of the death of one of Sesame Street's recurring actors that they purposefully included in the show to teach the young viewers about how there will always be someone passing on in your life eventually, moments like that proving the worth of the entire durable project. In the main I Am Big Bird was pretty straightforward, though animated segments illustrating for example how the bird costume is operated were unexpectedly fascinating, and if the film acknowledges Spinney - in his very late seventies at the time this was made - cannot go on forever, it nevertheless brings hope that he has left a genuine legacy. Overall, it was a sweet and humane, if simple, documentary.

[There is a lot of extra footage in featurette form in Spectrum's DVD. A must for Muppet completists.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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