‘I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story’
Directors:
David LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

Technically speaking, there isn’t much of a story to “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.” Its subject has spent the bulk of his life — some 45 years, with no inkling to retire — voicing and controlling the same two characters, namely “Sesame Street” mainstays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Though the show has changed over the decades, it’s still generally the same, and Spinney’s characterizations long ago fell into a comfortable groove. His personal life hasn’t always been smooth, with a divorce early in his life forcing joint custody of his kids, plus certain insecurities. But Spinney is largely a content and lovely man, free of the demons that tend to get aired in doc profiles such as this.

And yet “I Am Big Bird” is less of an information machine than a happy space. It aims to exude the same feeling one would get from talking with him, or rather listening to him rattle off stories in his calming baritone, itself only a few keys down from Big Bird’s own chipper tenor. It gives you the impression of knowing him well, and it does it, amazingly, while barely showing his face. We see Spinney, with his blonde Prince Valiant ’do, only infrequently, and usually obscured in some way. Instead the directors mostly keep to archival footage, partly to keep their film visually diverse, and party as though not to ruin a few generations’ deeply ingrained association of his voice with Jim Henson puppets.

“I Am Big Bird” is simple, then, but deceptively so. Though Spinney, again, hasn’t had a rollercoaster life, we do get the sense of the toll of a mostly ordinary though sometimes melancholic life spent at the service of others. Spinney loves his job, but he also loves not doing his job, and he especially loves not himself being the center of attention. He’s sincerely modest; when he speaks about his life there are unmistakable traces of mild embarrassment at talking about himself at all. He prefers to mask his feelings through characters, and stay reticent even then; the film’s emotional peak comes halfway through, when in the guise of Big Bird he sings “It Ain’t Easy Being Green” at Henson’s funeral, trying valiantly not to let voice cracks turn into full-on balling.

A fair amount of the film is devoted to the changing face of “Sesame Street,” making this a kind of split documentary. It dwells more on the nuts and bolts of the operation than “Being Elmo,” tracing not only its technical evolution — early Big Bird didn’t even have his yellow-and-white afro — but its shifting status as a cultural institution. From its inner city setting to its diverse cast, “Sesame Street” played a key part in implanting decency in society’s brains. (That said, saying they got Obama re-elected due to the Romney-defunding-PBS kerfuffle might be stretching things.) Throughout Spinney stays the same: a man doing his job, finding a balance between adjusting to changing times and upholding traditions, all while hiding his face from the world. A gentle man gets a film worthy of him, long as you ignore its dreadfully melodramatic score.

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