IN THEATERS (SF): “I Am Big Bird”

imagesI Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (2015; Dir.: Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Balboa Twin in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.

I’m not crying, there’s just a little Gibbles fluff in my eye. A behind-the-scenes documentary about puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who has been performing as Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) for nearly half a century, I Am Big Bird is a fascinating look inside the giant yellow suit (Spinney has a live video monitor and dialogue in front of him while performing, and lifts his hand above his head to operate the eyes and mouth). More importantly, it’s an open and affecting look at the little white-haired man inside of the suit – withdrawn, childlike, curious, and mercurial, not unlike his two iconic characters.  Spinney takes us from his abusive upbringing to his Air Force service to a chance encounter with Jim Henson that led to his big break, and through his rough early years on Sesame Street as an unaggressive performer amongst puppeteer gods. Spinney wore the yellow suit through a bitter divorce (“Inside, I was dying.” Oh God, don’t cry, Big Bird! Don’t cry!), into international fame, on a groundbreaking trip to 1980s China, onstage at Jim Henson’s memorial service (if you can sit stone-faced and dry-eyed through this sequence, you may want to have a cardiologist check out that smoldering chunk of black char you call a heart), and very nearly onto the disastrous space shuttle Challenger, becoming one of the most recognizable figures on Earth while remaining isolated and unknown behind the beak and yellow feathers. Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s affectionate film makes for a lovely coming out party.