The unexpected virtue of innocence...
Kickstarter-ed in the wake of the insightful Being Elmo, this affectionate portrait of original Sesame Street cast member Caroll Spinney reveals the octogenarian inside the iconic costume: a gentle soul whose isolated childhood informs his characters. What proves more elusive is a strong enough story to justify funding the production in the first place.
Bullied by classmates (“Having the name Caroll didn’t help...”) and his straitlaced father, Spinney sought escape in the US Air Force then threw himself back into first-love puppetry, performing on a Krusty-style clown show in Boston before being spotted by Jim Henson. His early days on Sesame Street were tough; he found himself unable to keep time with songs and, in colleague Frank Oz’s estimation, was too in awe of Henson: “He didn’t fit in, and he knew it.”
So where everyone else collaborated on their muppets, typically working the head and one hand while an assistant took the other, the solitary Spinney went solo (after being talked out of quitting), both as the beatific Big Bird and polar opposite Oscar the Grouch.
Using archive footage, animation and Spinney’s ample home videos, Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s doc demonstrates how Big Bird became the internationally recognised soul of the show and how deeply the puppeteer feels connected to his character.
There are brief asides about on-set tension, a bizarre tale of a woman killed on Spinney’s estate and a heartstopping connection to the Challenger disaster – plus the irony of a children’s entertainer being kept apart from his own kids after a divorce – but this is less an enthralling story than a hagiography, the most moving moment coming when, as Big Bird, he pays tribute at Henson’s 1990 memorial with a choked-up ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’.