Thursday, 3 December 2015

I Am Big Bird

In the last week I have watched two movies about the artistry of being a puppeteer. Last week it was Being Elmo, the story of how a young black man from Baltimore, Kevin Clash, became the star of Sesame Street in the form of the beloved Elmo.

This week it was the turn of Caroll Spinney, a 79 year old man (at the time of filming) who for nearly 50 years has been the man inside of the other character synonymous with the Children's Television Workshop, Big Bird.

Beginning with his appearance on a panel show where contestants have to figure out who of three people is the real person, depicting both the unheralded acclaim of his work but also his anonymity of his profession.

Throughout his career, Spinney has been a collaborative force in the role of Big Bird on Sesame Street, from Jim Henson meeting him in happenstance in Salt Lake City to his conflictive relationship with writer-director John Stone.

The film naturally focuses on the milestones of his career, from the live shows on the road with the human members of Sesame Street to the PBS special Big Bird in China, to the feature film Follow That Bird, up to the present day when he has been usurped by Elmo back to praise for his longevity.

There is much to admire in a career that has spanned this length of time, and how it challenges the man himself from his work with Big Bird but also the character Oscar the Grouch, another seminal Sesame Street icon.  The director makes sure to show you opposing sides of the Spinney personality. While Big Bird is the child inside of Caroll, Oscar is the darker side but maintaining a heart of gold.

Yet as praise worthy as Caroll's career is, the film also tells the love story of his marriage to his second wife Debbie, who embraces his career and art - unlike his first wife - and this union is imperative to the love and warmth that surrounds Spinney's work from his puppetry to his drawing and painting. This balance of work and home is a good recioe for success and love in equal fold.

There are moments that will make you cry, such as when Big Bird learns about death of a friend ('But he will be coming back won't he?) to his amazing performance of 'It's Not Easy Being Green' at the Jim Henson Memorial Service in full costume and character, you will be aghast at how Spinney was able to maintain composure when grieving for the loss of a friend and the man who gave him his break.

While Being Elmo was the more cuddly story about the character breaking out and becoming a huge star, I Am Big Bird is a story of more humility, subtlety and heart felt emotion more in keeping for a career rich in longevity and happiness.

In a way the title is misleading but explains why people have this connection with the Muppets and Sesame Street, they reflect the best of us in a form we find comforting and reassuring. So perhaps not only is Caroll Spinney, but maybe I am Big Bird to.

I Am Big Bird is available and was viewed on Netflix.

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