Everyone has looked at Big Bird at some point in their lives and wondered what, or who, makes that oversized, yellow-feathered Muppet work. Now's your chance to meet him, in "I Am Big Bird." For 43 years, Carol Spinney has been climbing into a bird outfit and brightening the day of children and parents alike on "Sesame Street." This doc is a straight-up timeline piece that tells you the story behind the Muppet and the man; and it's one of the best films at this year's Hot Docs Festival.
It isn't too hard to imagine that Spinney was a sensitive kid who had an early love of art and puppetry. Despite his unique talents, it wasn't necessarily an easy path for a young Big bird. He was raised by an abusive father, spent time in the military and worked his way through a hodgepodge of gigs in his early years attempting to be a puppeteer. Before the bird, Spinney did cheap TV productions like "Bozo the Clown," and even turned down work with Disney due to the mammoth company's unwillingness to pay a reasonable wage. His career was struggling when things seemingly got worse. A showcase in Salt Lake City went very poorly in the late 1960s, but his flexibility to improvise under pressure captured the attention of an onlooker by the name of Jim Henson.
Much of "I Am Big Bird" is simply gleeful viewing. Spinney also puppeteered and voiced Oscar the Grouch, so between the two characters, the highlight reel of "Sesame Street" moments is joyful nostalgia. Big Bird gabbing with Snuffleupagus, Oscar the Grouch being kissed by Maria, and images of Big Bird and Barkly the dog running down the Great Wall of China are just some of the incredible moments remembered in this doc. Reliving them should be an emotional roller-coaster for any Gen X-er.
The film features interviews with longtime cast members Bob McGrath and Emilio Delgado (Luis), who paint a picture of what it was like to work with the man in the bird suit. Spinney's wife Debra has an infectious charm of her own, and tells great stories, adding more colour to an already vibrant man. Remember to have the tissues ready for the two deaths chronicled in the film. Big Bird himself had to help children understand the passing of cast member Mr. Hooper in 1982, and footage of Big Bird's eulogy at Henson's memorial in 1990 is equally heartbreaking.
Spinney comes off as a man satisfied with what he's accomplished on public television and in the artistry of his characters. Unlike his contemporaries who work together to handle characters like Bert, Ernie and Kermit the Frog, Spinney's Muppets are controlled by him alone, making him almost a loner in the cast. Storylines about a contentious relationship with his director, his disappointment around losing screentime to Elmo, and a murder that took place on his Connecticut property add a little gravitas to the doc. At 80 years old, Spinney is still doing both characters.
If "I Am Big Bird" suffers from anything, it's that it comes off a little too sweet. An overly sappy score and a seemingly unending montage of acclaim becomes a bit much at times. But for the most part, this doc is a deserving portrait of a great man and a fascinating look into the magic of Henson Studios.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Sun., Apr. 27, 6:00 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre, Mon., Apr. 28, 11:00 a.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Wed., Apr. 30, 1:30 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Thurs., May 1, 1:30 p.m.
Revue Cinema, Sun., May 4, 4:00 p.m.