a SIFF 2014 review
Sunny I Am Big Bird Chases the Clouds Away
Over four generations (and counting) of kids have been raised on “Sesame Street.” All of them know Big Bird. All of them know Oscar the Grouch. Few of them know the puppeteer and actor who has portrayed them both since the beginning. His name is Caroll Spinney, and when all is said and down he’ll go down as a legendary, iconic talent likely to have no comparable equal at any point in the foreseeable future.
I watched I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story during the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. It blew me away, instantly making me feel like I was four-years-old again watching “Sesame Street” for the very first time. Watching the film again to prepare for its theatrical release, I was amazed once again, directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker crafting a decidedly human story of an artist’s journey to self-awareness that held me spellbound and captivated beginning to end.
There’s not a lot to add. Through Spinney’s own words, through his eyes, the filmmakers capture an evolving cultural, political and creative landscape that refuses to stand still. It shows how an actor can find the role of a lifetime in the most unlikely of places, that love can blossom seemingly out of the ashes of regret and everlasting friendships can be forged in the fiery cauldrons of tragedy. This is a movie that traffics in the minutiae of the human spirit while also celebrating those who make a career educating, edifying and entertaining children as if it was all they were meant to do, which in Spinney’s case can’t help but feel exactly the case.
What’s most interesting about the documentary is how it refuses to be a puff piece. A large portion of the film is spent covering Spinney’s relationship with Jim Henson, a partnership it should be noted wasn’t always sunshine and roses. At the same time, the closeness that developed between the two is obvious and palpable even with very few words said on the subject, everything building to Big Bird’s appearance at Henson’s funeral poignantly singing Kermit the Frog’s signature anthem “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” The emotions that came forth during this sequence cascaded out of me like a waterfall crashing down a mountainside, taking me back to a time and a place I’d never be able to forget even if I wanted to try (which, quite honestly, I don’t).
The film also fearlessly brings up the tragic 2005 murder of Judith Nilan, the young woman brutally killed by an employee of Spinney’s while on his sprawling rural property located on the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts. It’s a signature event in the subject’s life, one LaMattina and Walker don’t so much dwell on as they make sure and document as to show how these events affected both the actor along with his loving wife Debra. Their reactions, even a decade later, are key to understanding Spinney’s worldview and why it is so important to him to continue to portray “The Bird,” as he calls him, even now as he enters his 80’s, without them I’m not certain the movie would be near as emotionally effective as it ultimately proves to be.
There’s so much more, discovering it all a deliciously divine treat that gets better and more rapturous with every bite. I Am Big Bird might not end up being the year’s best documentary, but it will certainly be one of the more rapturously entertaining and blissfully personal, those elements alone making it a timeless marvel that gloriously lives up to the high standards set by the PBS icon situated right at its center. It’s a sunny day, indeed.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 ½ (out of 4)
Interview with Caroll Spinney and co-director Dave LaMattina by Sara Michelle Fetters for KCTS9, Seattle’s Public Television Station