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DVD Review

DVD cover

I Am Big Bird


Starring: Caroll Spinney
Distributor: Spectrum
RRP: £17.99
5 060192 815788
Certificate: 12
Release Date: 01 June 2015

Puppeteer and cartoonist Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street since the inaugural season back in 1969 – and shows no sign of stopping yet. Combining compelling interviews with fellow puppeteer cronies and fascinating material from Caroll’s personal archives, I Am Big Bird illuminates the dynamic portrait of an unknown man whose Sesame Street characters, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, have influenced generations of children. An icon of popular culture for over 40 years, beak and feathers weaving a path through American history; Caroll’s stories are the stuff of legend. And, as the yellow feathers give way to grey hair, it is the man, not the puppet, who will steal your heart...

Mention Big Bird and almost everyone on the planet will know who you are talking about. The character has shaped the informative years of many toddlers from my generation (I was born in 1970 if you must know), to the current generation. Sesame Street is as important a programme today as it was over 45 years ago. Ask people who Caroll Spinney is and most will probably say: "I've never heard of her". Firstly she is a he, and secondly he's the voice and man inside the Big Bird costume as well as voice and puppeteer of Oscar the Grouch - roles he's played since the characters were first introduced. Spinney is currently 81 years of age and shows no sign of stopping performing.

I had always thought that Big Bird was voiced by a woman and the person in the suit was probably someone different today than back in my childhood. There was also no way I would have believed that the person who voiced Oscar the Grouch was also the voice behind Big Bird. However, voices aside, I pretty much still stand my rather naive view that it doesn't really matter who is inside the costume. I doubt anyone could really tell if it was Spinney in the costume or any other puppeteer... although watching some of the more recent footage Big Bird has definitely acquired a very noticeable change in posture.

I Am Big Bird explores Spinney's involvement with Sesame Street and his two most famous characters. It also showcases his film making, cartoons and art work. But the heart of the story is in his marriage to Debra.

One of the interesting, and rather surprising stories revolves around Spinney being approached by NASA to go into space as Big Bird. The reason? NASA felt that children were losing interest in the shuttle program. Spinney was apprehensive, but knew he'd never get the opportunity ever again. He agreed, but before the mission, NASA came back and revealed that there just wasn't room to have the Big Bird costume in the shuttle. So, sadly, the idea was scrapped and instead NASA sought a teacher to take his place. That was the fateful Challenger mission of 1986. I can only imagine how even more traumatic the events of that day would have been if millions of people tuned in to witness the death of Big Bird live on TV.

There's also a nice story revolving around the Big Bird in China TV movie (1983). Caroll and Debra spent a lot of time off camera with the little girl in the movie. They wrote to her after the film was completed, but never received a reply. So it was great to see the three finally reunited all these years later.

Personally, I wish that Spinney and the late Jon Stone's working relationship had been explored a little more as well as why Spinney was seen as difficult and an outsider on the set of Sesame Street in the early years.

Extras: Caroll on camera (39 sec in which Spinney talks about the one appearance he had in Sesame Street as himself. Sadly there is no footage of this appearance); Chinese Big Bird (1 min, 44 sec look at Spinney training the Chinese puppeteer for the Chinese version of Big Bird); Crazy Crayon (3 min - one of the episodes of Crazy Crayon that Spinney wrote and animated); Deb's Song (4 min, 16 sec Sesame Street wrap party footage of Big Bird singing a song that his father in law wrote); First Date (1 min, 35 sec Caroll and Debra talk about their first date); Follow that Bird (1 min, 59 sec behind the scenes footage); The Goon Show (1 min, 05 sec home variety show Spinney and his family made); Michael Jackson (37 sec in which Spinney talks about the time he met a young Michael Jackson); The Million Puppet March (2 min, 5 sec which sees thousands March on Washington with puppets after Mitt Romney promised to cut the funding to PBS, the home of Sesame Street, if he was elected); Biggest Fan (2 min, 46 sec look at Spinney's involvement with a disabled boy who is a huge fan of Big Bird); Oscar rehearsing (1 min, 23 sec look at Spinney and Oscar Michael Bublé rehearsing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'); Oscar's name (43 sec explanation of how Oscar got his name); A Space Story (2 min, 27 sec film made by Spinney); Spooferin Commercial (2 min, 24 sec look at a serious commercial Spinney was involved with about epilepsy, as well as a spoof commercial he was involved with); Times Square (1 min, 28 sec featurette in which the film makers take to the streets of New York to ask people who Caroll Spinney is); Yogi Berra (31 sec in which Spinney talks about meeting baseball catcher Yogi Berra; and the film's original Trailer (2 min, 08 sec).

I Am Big Bird is an interesting, at times moving, documentary that will make those that have already fallen in love with Big Bird, also fall in love with Spinney.


Darren Rea

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