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Documentary looks at the man behind Big Bird

By Melanie Bethune, September 25 2014 —

There’s a sense of innocence lost when a favourite character is unmasked. Subconsciously, we all know that underneath the furry head of a mascot, there’s a living person giving life to this outward form. But we convince ourselves that in some way putting on makeup or an outfit changes something. Cinderella isn’t a theatre student named Sarah from San Antonio – Cinderella is in fact Cinderella.

Carroll Spinney, the man behind Big Bird, has blurred the line between character and man since he first put on the feathered suit in 1969. Now, after almost 50 years of playing Big Bird, his story is being told.

The documentary I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story, playing as part of the Calgary International Film Festival, explores Spinney’s life as a man and his life as Big Bird from Sesame Street. The film is a heart-wrenching and nostalgic whirlwind through the highs and lows of Spinney’s life and career.

The story is told largely through period footage with voice-overs by Spinney, his close friends and family. We learn of Spinney’s relationship with Jim Henson and other creative collaborators alongside his dissolved first marriage and the eventual love story with his second wife, Debra. We watch his love of puppetry play out alongside the ups and downs of his career and personal life.

The film is a biographical story, ebbing and flowing with plot twists and moments of both calm and action intercut with photos, video and animation.

Beyond telling the story of a single man, the film features themes of passion and legacy.

Spinney is Big Bird in every sense. He lives Big Bird, breathes Big Bird and embodies everything that Big Bird is supposed to be. Spinney is still alive, but the film acknowledges what the world will lose when he’s gone. He will be missed, but at the same time he leaves behind multiple generations of lives changed by his presence. If there is anything to be taken away from Spinney’s story, it’s this core message of timelessness.

For now, we can all tune in daily to Sesame Street for a little nostalgia as we watch Big Bird thrill us with the same passion he’s had for the last 50 years. And he likely won’t be stopping any time soon.

I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story plays Saturday Sept. 27 at the Globe Cinema.


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