Early in the documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, the film’s subject, who has performed as Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch on Sesame Street since the show’s inception, discusses his first meeting with Muppet impresario Jim Henson. Henson caught Spinney’s performance at a puppetry festival—a performance that was severely compromised by a major technical glitch. Spinney recalls Henson’s praise afterward as both charitable and admiring: “I liked what you were trying to do.” The same praise might apply to this Kickstarter-funded doc; Spinney’s unassuming career is worth celebrating, even if it doesn’t provide much of a story.
I Am Big Bird, titled in a way that recalls both the Kevin Clash film Being Elmo and the autobiographical output of Leonard Nimoy, features plenty of documentary standbys: It mixes archival materials, talking-head interviews, animation, and what looks like at least some stock footage for a multimedia overview of Spinney’s life and work. The archival material offers the most novelty, because a surprising percentage of it comes from Spinney himself; he and second wife Debra, it’s revealed, are compulsive recorders of their experiences, and Spinney has plenty of home-movie footage from his childhood. I Am Big Bird also features some wonderful behind-the-scenes clips of Sesame Street and other Henson-related productions, both current and past. It only occasionally has to resort to time-killing strategies like lingering close-ups of feathers on the Big Bird costume.
Indeed, there are plenty of well-captured moments and entertainingly told anecdotes, both Sesame-related and not, like a sweet story about how Spinney met Debra, or a brief clip of Henson, in character as Kermit, ribbing Spinney about going home early after finishing his work on the Muppet Family Christmas special. Fans of Henson, Muppets, and/or Sesame Street should probably see it, and may well shed tears, especially when the movie shows Spinney’s performance of “Bein’ Green” from the Henson memorial service after his death in 1990.
But these moments don’t necessarily translate into momentum. The nature of Spinney’s legacy, as man who has performed two beloved children’s characters for nearly half a century, imposes a certain consistency on his life story. That’s both a tribute to his lasting body of work as a performer and a sign that his biography may not provide ideal materials for a feature film. The movie respectfully tries to shape Spinney’s life into a narrative anyway: He grows up with a supportive mom and a stricter dad; he works at Sesame and gains confidence as a performer, shaping the Big Bird character from a Goofy-style sidekick to a child-audience surrogate and experiencing some mild-sounding friction with Sesame writer/director Jon Stone; his success with Big Bird allows him to star in a feature film (Follow That Bird), visit places like China, and generally see the world. (A startling revelation: He was almost on the Challenger shuttle!)
I Am Big Bird is interesting, then, but only occasionally surprising, and Joshua Johnson’s perma-swelling score makes long stretches of the movie feel like preludes to an in-memoriam montage. As intrusive as it is, the music strategy does have some thematic resonance, as the movie touches upon the bittersweet but life-affirming idea that characters like Big Bird can someday outlive their original performers, as Kermit The Frog has. Filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker also hint at the changing landscape of Sesame Street; they even have participants address the Elmo in the room. But they don’t go any further in-depth on these topics than they do about Spinney’s marriage (sweet and nurturing) or his relationship with other Muppeteers (friendly, but at a slight remove). Henson saw potential in Spinney that he proceeded to realize over the course of many years. I Am Big Bird only has 90 minutes to cover the basics.