By Daniel Barnes
A behind-the-scenes documentary about puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who has been performing as Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) for nearly half a century, I Am Big Bird is a fascinating look inside the giant yellow suit. More importantly, it’s an open and affecting look at the little white-haired man inside of the suit – withdrawn, childlike, curious, and mercurial, not unlike his two iconic characters.
Spinney takes us from his abusive upbringing to his Air Force service to a chance encounter with Jim Henson that led to his big break, and through his rough early years on Sesame Street as an unaggressive performer amongst puppeteer gods. He wore the yellow suit through a bitter divorce (“Inside, I was dying.” Oh God, don’t cry, Big Bird! Don’t cry!), into international fame, on a groundbreaking trip to 1980s China, onstage at Jim Henson’s memorial service (if you can sit stone-faced and dry-eyed through this sequence, you may want to have a cardiologist check out that smoldering chunk of black char you call a heart).
In the process, Spinney became one of the most recognizable figures on Earth while remaining isolated and unknown behind the beak and yellow feathers. More than anything, Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s affectionate film makes for a lovely coming out party.