I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY – Joshua Johnson
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Sesame Street was one of the few American kid’s TV shows that aired in the United Kingdom when I was a child, so I grew up being very familiar with its cast of characters, both human and muppet. While that lovable ball of red fuzz Elmo is undoubtedly the star of the show these days, for many years the center of attention was Big Bird, the eight-foot tall yellow creature who has the innocence and inquisitiveness of a six year old child. Since the character first debuted on the show in 1969 he has been played by Caroll Spinney, a master puppeteer and artist. Now 81 years old, Spinney is the subject of this new documentary feature from directors Dave La Mattina and Chad Walker, which charts Spinney’s life, from his early years growing up in Massachusetts, to the beginnings of his friendship with Jim Henson, and his work on the Street controlling both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
The score for I Am Big Bird is by a young composer with whom most of you will be wholly unfamiliar: Joshua Johnson. Vermont-born Johnson, who I believe is still in his 20s or early 30s, has most recently been working as an assistant to composer John Paesano, writing additional music for films such as The Maze Runner and When The Game Stands Tall, as well as TV shows such as Dragons: Riders of Berk, and Marvel’s Daredevil. As lead composer he has written the music for a couple of short films and other documentaries including, unusually, two about American soccer: Kei, the life story of Sierra Leonean striker Kei Kamara, and We Must Go, which chronicled the journey of the Egyptian national team and its American coach Bob Bradley in their efforts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. I Am Big Bird is the first project he has scored to receive a wide release, and the first to have an accompanying soundtrack. And with that I’m going to make a prediction: based on the strength of his work here, Joshua Johnson is going to have a very bright future indeed.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the score is fully orchestral, bright, lively, and thoroughly beautiful. Johnson explains that “In the film, Frank Oz mentions that Caroll gives Big Bird’s character a ‘child-like innocence’. This was particularly apparent to me throughout the scoring process, and I was careful to infuse that sense of wonderment, emotion, and sentimentality into the music of the film. I only hope I did Caroll and Big Bird justice!” Well, rest assured that Johnson delivered entirely on this promise. His music does indeed have that sense of wonderment, emotion, and sentimentality, and in huge amounts: throughout the score, Johnson makes his music effortlessly engaging, drawing on rich and bold orchestral colors, and moving themes which are not afraid to crescendo at every opportunity.
In the score’s notes, Johnson further explains that “There was a big emphasis put on making themes for both Caroll and Big Bird, and I remember trying a handful before we settled into the two main themes of the score: Caroll’s theme (heard in “Prelude/Main Title”) and Big Bird’s theme (heard in “Rise to Fame” and the magnificent “Big Bird Peaks”). There are aspects of the themes that are interchangeable, and that is intentional; Caroll and Big Bird are, essentially, the same.” These two themes are the cornerstones of the score, and guide the listener through Spinney’s life. They are beautifully rendered throughout the piece, with strings, pianos, and lightly dancing woodwinds generally forming the backbone of each theme. They are linked, harmonically, but Caroll’s theme generally tends to be more playful and whimsical, whereas Big Bird’s theme is a little more triumphant.
In terms of ‘feel’, I Am Big Bird seems to be very rooted in the same emotional world that James Horner often wrote in, with harmonies, chord progressions and textural ideas that recall some of the late great composer’s loveliest and most intimate works, especially things like Casper, Cocoon, and The Land Before Time, as well as Alan Silvestri’s Forrest Gump.
Several gorgeous instrumental solos anchor different cues. There’s a beautiful, slightly melancholy piano theme in “Mother and Father” that eventually gives way to a sonorous, downbeat piano and cello duet. Sweeping high strings and a see-sawing violin melody allow “Wanderlust” to soar. The lightly struck percussion in “The Bozo Years” gives that cue a sense of purpose and adventure. The gentle piano theme in “First Day” is just sublime, and is revisited in “Jim Friendship,” seemingly indicating that the piano motif is intended to represent Henson and his group of dreamers and visionaries.
The rich cello performances return in “Divorce” and “Family Matters,” clearly linking that instrument as the key to conveying the various dramatic events in Spinney’s personal and familial life. The dancing, elegant string writing in “China” is warm and idealistic. The short, but emotionally resonant “ROTC,” allows Johnson to explore some lovely ideas for clarinet which add a welcome, but not overwhelming, moment of downbeat reflection. The theme for “Mr. Hooper” is utterly gorgeous, while the twinkling celesta and glockenspiel parts of “Transitioning” give that cue a magical, child-like aspect. The final two cues, “Big Bird’s Decline” and “Why He Still Does It,” end the score with a satisfyingly epic sweep that will surely delight anyone who feels that there is too little feeling in modern film scoring.
With exasperating predictability, many mainstream film critics pointed to Johnson’s score as being one of the film’s drawbacks, calling it “intrusive” (Jesse Hassenger, AV Club), and “incessantly schmaltzy … threatening to drown us in syrup” (Mark Kermode, The Guardian). And, with probably equal predictability, I find myself disagreeing with them entirely. One man’s intrusiveness is another man’s emotional connectivity. One man’s syrupy schmaltz is another man’s lyrical beauty. I hate that the prevailing thinking among many respected writers is that film music should be bland, themeless dreck, which makes every effort to not show any emotional content for fear of manipulating its audience. God forbid a movie actually makes us feel something, has some emotional connection with its viewers, and allows a composer to write something compelling and beautiful and inspiring. I Am Big Bird, thankfully, allowed Joshua Johnson to do all those things, and as a result the music is an absolute delight, easily one of the best documentary scores of the year. Look for this composer to go on to big things in the years to come.
Buy the I Am Big Bird soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Prelude/Main Title (2:09)
- Mother and Father (2:36)
- Wanderlust (1:40)
- The Bozo Years (2:02)
- First Day (2:26)
- Caroll Quits/Rise to Fame (5:17)
- Divorce (2:17)
- Jim Friendship (2:00)
- China (5:21)
- ROTC (1:39)
- Mr. Hooper (2:24)
- Big Bird Peaks (2:19)
- Family Matters (2:15)
- Transitioning (4:03)
- Big Bird’s Decline (3:27)
- Why He Still Does It (2:50)
Running Time: 44 minutes 44 seconds
Varese Sarabande VSD-7348 (2015)
Music composed by Joshua Johnson. Conducted by Jason Livesay. Orchestrations by Joshua Johnson, Jason Livesay, Nolan Livesay and Celeste Monteith. Recorded and mixed by Matt Ward. Album produced by Joshua Johnson and Robert Townson.