Saturday, April 26, 2014

Documentary offers a look at the man inside the Big Bird costume

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story opens with Spinney appearing on To Tell The Truth, a popular television show from the 1970s where celebrity panelists had to guess which of three guests is actually who they claim to be. Forty years on, and despite being responsible for one of the most iconic characters on the planet, probably 99 per cent of the population still couldn't tell you who this man is.

I Am Big Bird will change that, as it tells the story of the man who has helped entertain and educate generations of children while portraying Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. Through interviews with Spinney and numerous colleagues, we learn about a man who can be both simple and complex and who's fully deserving of the time in the spotlight that this documentary gives him.

The offspring of a loving, supportive and artistic mother and a distant and sometimes abusive father developed an interest in puppets as a child and that, combined with his feminine-sounding name, made him a target for school bullies. And as Spinney's relationship with his father further deteriorated, he enlisted in the air force and spent four years there before returning to civilian life and his passion for puppetry.

Spinney's big break came at a 1969 puppet festival where he met Muppet creator Jim Henson, who invited him to join his team on the fledgling Sesame Street. He didn't fit in well at first and almost quit the show, but it wasn't long before Big Bird and Oscar started playing bigger roles, which led to a dizzying and event-filled career that Spinney shows no signs of relinquishing even at age 80.

The film follows Spinney around the globe as Big Bird becomes one of the most recognizable characters in the world, but also delves into the personal life of the man in the yellow, feathered costume. There have been a lot of lows counteracting all of the highs he's experienced, including a painful divorce, the passing of several co-workers (including Henson in 1990 at age 53), the murder of a woman on his property and narrowly missing being on the Challenger space shuttle that exploded shortly after takeoff.

But Spinney's deep love for his second wife Debbie, his puppeteering work and the drawing he's done all of his life have kept him grounded and enabled him to press forward and create a happy separate life outside of the surreal Muppet world that has defined him to the public.

Many of us grew up with Sesame Street, and it's a treat to go behind the scenes of the program and meet many of the people responsible for getting it off the ground and pushing it forward for so long. But even if your life wasn't somehow touched by the show, you should be touched by this film.

Here's the trailer for I Am Big Bird

I Am Big Bird will be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at: 6 p.m. on April 27 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (which will feature Spinney speaking to the audience after the film); 11 a.m. on April 28 at Isabel Bader Theatre; 1:30 p.m. on April 30 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; 1:30 p.m. on May 1 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; and 4 p.m. on May 4 at The Revue.

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