In 1969, kids around the globe met the wide-eyed Big Bird and cantankerous Oscar the Grouch when they turned on their televisions and encountered Sesame Street. Generations of children have since grown up with those lovable felt puppets, and so has the man who's played both characters since their creation: Caroll Spinney.
The last remaining employee to have worked at the Jim Henson Company from the very start, the eighty-year-old master puppeteer has no plans to stop. “People have asked me, 'Don’t you want to retire?' — and I can’t imagine wanting to retire,” Spinney says in I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which opens Friday, May 29 at the Sie FilmCenter; the documentary chronicles the birth of Big Bird and offers a significant peek behind the feathers.
I Am Big Bird is a great example of the showbiz documentary, a genre that pulls back the curtain on our cultural Wizards of Oz and introduces us to the reality that permeates our make-believe. These films are not as heavy as the usual issue-driven docs; often accused of being “fluff” and “candy-coating,” they taste more delicious when they balance art with reality and leave behind a savory taste to complement the sweetness of show business. I Am Big Bird succeeds at that, as do these five other great docs that take us all the way behind the scenes:
5) The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
Nanette Burstein (American Teen) and Brett Morgan (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) created a colorful documentary that adapts famed Hollywood producer Robert Evans’s autobiography of how he got his legendary start in Tinseltown as a young man sitting poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Winning over actress Norma Shearer with his good looks and charm, Evans earned himself a brief but star-studded acting career that soon led him to producing films and becoming the head of production at Paramount Pictures, at the tender age of 34, where he reigned from 1966 to 1974 and was responsible for some of American cinema’s greatest hits, including The Godfather, Love Story, Harold & Maude, Rosemary’s Baby, The Odd Couple and Chinatown. The documentary bustles with energy due to Evans’s own narration of his storied life and a vast collection of photographs that illustrate even more of the story. If you’re a fan of Hollywood Babylon and grand stories of rises, falls and reinventions, then you need to meet Robert Evans and watch one of the greatest Hollywood stories ever told.
4) Lost in La Mancha (2002)
Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (Brothers of the Head) capture the cracks and eventual destruction of the ambitious dream project of Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, 12 Monkeys) — a wild adaptation of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote starring Johnny Depp. The doc started as a basic, behind-the-scenes portrait but due to dumb (bad) luck, it became a cautionary tale about running forward when your production begins to get away from you. Taking a slashed budget and a tight schedule that doesn’t fit his normal methods, Gilliam sets out — much like Don Quixote himself — to lead his cast and crew to the outskirts of Spain, where they encounter a terrible illness that takes down nearly everyone, including the director himself; then the unstoppable force of Mother Nature eventually tears the entire production apart. Fulton and Pepe had second thoughts about finishing their film, but Gilliam himself told the team that “someone has to get a movie out this. I guess it’s going to be you.” La Mancha will have you wincing at every turn as you watch a creative and passionate filmmaker nearly destroyed by his own vision — but in the end, the lessons learned far outweigh the pain.
3) ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway (2007)
Dori Berinstein (Some Assembly Required, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life) created an eye-opening portrait of one of Broadway’s biggest, and most controversial, seasons, taking you backstage from creation to curtain with four epic shows making their premiere on the Great White Way in 2004 – Wicked, Avenue Q, Taboo and Caroline, or Change – and the unprecedented access will make your head spin. ShowBusiness introduces us to Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel on the verge of their “big breaks”; shows the minds behind Avenue Q figuring out just how far they can go with their naughty puppet show; and exposes Taboo’s thorny battle between creator Boy George and producer Rosie O’Donnell as they butt heads on how to tell his life story. As if all of that juice, and all of the interviews to go along with it, aren’t enough, the film strikes more gold when all four productions are nominated for Tony Awards that only some of them are going to win. Whether you're a theater fan or have seen just one stage production, Showbusiness will floor you with its portrait of just what it takes to make it on Broadway.
2) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)
Despite the fact that she was 81, no one expected comedian Joan Rivers to pass away last year — especially not after this 2010 documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) showed us the queen of comedy, warts and all, at the top of her game. Rivers was a personality who rarely hid anything about her personal life — she and her daughter, Melissa, starred as themselves in a TV movie about their lives after the1987 suicide of Joan's husband, Edgar – but the interviews and lenses get up close and almost too personal here as we learn of Rivers’s controversial rise to fame as a comic, the friends and foes she made along the way, and how she learned to use her frequent plastic surgeries and acerbic wit as a shield to keep her career strong while she kept audiences laughing no matter what. The saddest part of Piece of Work is that it deserved a sequel to show where Joan would’ve ended up a wonderful decade down the road. But at least we can forever cherish all the lessons and laughs that Rivers had to share.
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1) Madonna: Truth Or Dare (1991)
When it was released in 1991, Truth Or Dare was a revelation to popular culture. Alex Keshishian (With Honors, Love and Other Disasters) had documented global pop-music sensation Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, and the result was a true tour de force — a real feat of strength — for all involved. He faced the difficult task of capturing the world’s most famous woman at a time when her public persona and music were at the fire-point of controversy – her brazen sexuality was twisting with America’s conservative mores, and her desire to court anger by playing with religious themes and support the LGBTQ community just added gas to the flames – but Keshishian pushed further rather than pull back, and the world of entertainment docs is a better place for it. Shot in arty black-and-white like Fellini’s greatest wet dream and intercut with incredibly colorful and legendary concert footage from the tour itself, Truth removed the last remaining guard from Madonna (well, her 1992 Sex book would pull the final thread) and exposed her soul, naked to the world — while also reminding everyone that she was orchestrating this revelation and exposing the secrets and fears of her fans and detractors, becoming even more of an idol in the process. In these days of reality TV we will never see anything like Truth Or Dare again — but we don’t need to because this audacious film is everything.