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I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story: Follow That Bird! 

Wednesday, May 13 2015
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Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker's documentary takes us inside the man inside the world's first favorite muppet. A product of approximately equal parts support (mom) and abuse (dad), Caroll Spinney, now 81, was an ambitious but sensitive kid, and one who'd also been bullied. ("Someday those bastards are gonna brag they knew me," he cops to having thought.) Spinney wasn't into team sports, but the film notes that the semi-hermetic enclosures required to play Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch (Spinney's other character) involve some athleticism: He dons a full-body suit (with 4,000 feathers) for the former and a garbage can for the latter. Spinney first caught Jim Henson's eye when coping with a technical puppet-show difficulty by publicly pantomiming his own anxious frustration. In the early Sesame Street days he floundered a little, and didn't quite fit in, but eventually had the insight to play his primary character as a guileless child. Maintaining Big Bird's innocence hasn't been easy for Spinney — consider a divorce from a first wife who (allegedly) didn't appreciate his work; the resurgence of self-doubt, this time suicidal; the haunting near-miss of almost having been on the doomed final flight of space shuttle Challenger; the threatening ascendancy of Elmo; and the financial hostility of Mitt Romney. This litany of woes doesn't even mention the brutal murder that occurred on Spinney's property 10 years ago — something the filmmakers, in their most recent cut, decided not to mention. A slathering of sentimentally triumphant music emphasizes what seems like a feeling of protectiveness for their subject, but fair enough. Seen in archive footage, the moment when Big Bird learned his human friend Mr. Hooper had died is, as ever, completely devastating.

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Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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