I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a portrait of creative work as unexpected savior. The transcendence that the film offers isn’t to be taken lightly considering the near impossibility of living professionally as an artist. That Caroll Spinney could make a living from his art is particularly remarkable considering that he’s a puppeteer, which is an ambition that his rigid, abusive father once described—understandably, if cruelly—as a sure route to starvation. Spinney, however, would serve as the primary architect and performer of two iconic creations: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, both from the beloved television show Sesame Street, performing them to this day, 45 years after their inception.
Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker bring Spinney’s story to life as a series of circularly scruffy anecdotes, refreshingly resisting a predictably chronological three-act structure. Details rise and recede and rise again—like they might if you were trading stories with someone you just met over a half-dozen beers. An early image, for instance, shows that Spinney has three children, but we don’t learn their names until they’re personally interviewed as adults. The name of the children’s mother isn’t mentioned at all. Spinney’s early life, before Sesame Street, is sketched quickly with a few evocative stories and revisited unexpectedly in fashions that testify to the past’s undulating hold on the present. This structure isn’t careless, but loose, organic-feeling, lending the relatively conventional aesthetic—an assemblage of talking heads and home and archive footage—a surprising sense of liveliness.
That aesthetic also isn’t as conventional as it initially appears. The editing subtly, fluidly visualizes Spinney’s act of remembering his life, offering startling juxtapositions of image, aural interview footage, and music. When Spinney recalls his father’s enraged reaction to the spilling of a paint can when the former was six years old, we’re shown a picture of father and son, presumably in their front yard, as a great flock of white birds appear to lift off from the ground. As presented, the birds connote escape from explosion, succinctly embodying what Spinney’s eventual stint in the Air Force as a young man might have meant to him relative to his tense home life. When Spinney discusses his depression and flirtation with suicide in the wake of his divorce, the directors highlight home-video footage of his children, partially in slow motion, hauntingly emphasizing their presence as an instrument of inspiration as well as inadvertent reminder of what’s at stake should his life collapse.
Working with a phenomenal wealth of filmed footage (much of it courtesy of the subject and his second wife, Debra), and with the extensive participation of Spinney and other Sesame Street legends like Frank Oz, the filmmakers craft a biography of the puppeteer that shows him to be a prototypical wounded artist who’s sensitive, empathetic, and somewhat remote and given to living in his head. The film’s most moving passages highlight the similarities between Spinney, Big Bird, and Oscar the Grouch, understanding them all to be misfits with a poignantly pronounced aura of wounded decency; the characters are both a representation and a completion of their creator’s talents.
And that pronounced-ness is the key to Sesame Street’s lasting appeal and importance. Jim Henson, Oz, Spinney, and all the show’s other collaborators understood that platitudes about trueness to yourself could only take one so far. Teachers and entertainers must personify openness, exposure to life, and also be willing to acknowledge its attending pain, which is memorably illustrated in the film by footage of Big Bird’s heartbreaking performance of “Bein’ Green” at Henson’s funeral. I Am Big Bird evokes the most extraordinary quality of Spinney’s legacy: its loping, graceful emotional bravery.