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I AM BIG BIRD: THE CARROLL SPINNEY STORY

★★

AN UNFOCUSED LOOK AT A TELEVISION LEGEND

THEATRICAL REVIEW
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By Daniel Lammin
26th July 2015
There probably isn’t a more iconic children's television show than 'Sesame Street', and no character more famous than Big Bird. Within the framework of a show built to connect and educate children rather than talk down to them, he captures childlike innocence and optimism, and central to that success is the contribution of puppeteer Carroll Spinney, who has played the character since the show began over 40 years ago. With ‘I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story’, documentary filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker pull back the curtain on Spinney, his relationship with the character and his contribution to television history. The problem is, this might not be enough of a story to tell.

An aspiring and talented puppeteer, Spinney’s life changed when he met Jim Henson, the legendary creator of The Muppets. Henson invited Spinney to join his team in developing a new show for the Children's Television Workshop which became Sesame Street, putting him in charge of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. ‘I Am Big Bird’ recounts through interviews and archival footage Spinney’s development of the characters and his relationship with their sudden fame, as well as the personal cost to himself and his family.

'I AM BIG BIRD: THE CARROLL SPINNEY STORY' TRAILER

There’s a lot of rich material to be explored here, so it’s a bit of a surprise that ‘I Am Big Bird’ ends up as quite a slight film. There’s obvious enthusiasm and passion for the subject, but LaMattina and Walker lack the objective edge that would have let them really dig into something. The film moves from moment to moment in Spinney’s life, but it lacks any kind of arc or governing theme to hold them all together. This isn’t always a problem when discussing Sesame Street, but it means the darker or more serious moments fall with a surprising thud. Obviously Big Bird features prominently in the documentary, and seeing this wonderful character explored in such detail is really exciting (and surprisingly emotional), but it comes at the cost of Oscar, who is skimmed over fleetingly without any level of analysis. It’s a pity, because the little we get suggests a lot of complex thought has gone into him.

The film moves from moment to moment in Spinney’s life, but it lacks any kind of arc or governing theme to hold them all together.

It also doesn’t seem so committed to its subject - at points, it feels more like a celebration of Jim Henson or Sesame Street than of Spinney, at least a quarter of the film devoted to interviews praising Henson. This highlights two things - that we’re really overdue for a dedicated documentary on both Henson and Sesame Street, and that ‘I Am Big Bird’ suffers from a lack of focus. So much of its running time is spent idolising the figures in it that it doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole. Sure, you walk away with a strong understanding of what kind of a man and a performer Spinney is, but you also get the feeling you’ve been spun some pretty great PR about the show and its creators. This comes at the cost of finessed, clear filmmaking. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable experience (anything that recalls the wonderful childhood memories of watching 'Sesame Street' can only be fun), but it doesn’t make it satisfying. Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker have done an admirable job honouring a man they so clearly admire, but ‘I Am Big Bird’ ends up feeling far more like a wonderfully detailed Wikipedia article on Carroll Spinney than a solid piece of documentary filmmaking.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 30/07/2015
RUN TIME: 1h 30m
DIRECTORS: Dave La Mattina
Chad N. Walker
WRITER: Dave La Mattina
PRODUCERS: Clay Frost
Dave La Mattina
Chad N. Walker
SCORE: Joshua Johnson
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