Being Elmo : A Puppeteer's Journey

Certificate: TBC
Running time: 80 mins
Director: Constance Marks, Philip Shane
Starring: Kevin Clash, Frank Oz, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Henson
Genre: Documentary
Country: USA

With the entire world awaiting the cinematic return of The Muppets it was the perfect opportunity to stop and take a look at a warm hearted success story that typifies the American dream.  Being Elmo : A Puppeteer’s Journey is the story of Kevin Clash (The Muppets Executive Producer, Director and talent behind Elmo) and how it all came about that he, a working class kid from Baltimore, would capture the hearts of millions of children worldwide.

There’s a lot going on in Being Elmo and it’s easy to overlook most of it.  The film has Whoopi Goldberg narrating after all and some beautifully nostalgic home footage from Kevin’s teenage years and his early encounters with mentor/friend Kermit Love and behind the scenes footage from such lovable shows as Captain Kangaroo and
Sesame Street.  Probably the most amazing thing about the origins story of Clash is how remarkably supportive his parents were.  Using the standard documentary device of talking heads, still photography and archive footage the Clash family recall the occasion when a young Kevin cut up his mother’s fur coat to make a monkey puppet.  In any other family the documentary’s good feeling would probably end there and the resulting destruction with severe discipline but in the Clash household, a household that financially could not afford to replace the item, it’s little more than a blip on the radar with his father stating “next time just ask”.  The significance of this reaction and the endless support both parents show Kevin will not become apparent to the world for years to come.

The scenes, presumably recorded for Channel 2 Baltimore, in which Kevin first meets Kermit Love have a sweetness to them that’s enhanced years later when Kevin takes on the mantel of Kermit and workshops with a young puppeteer.  There’s something in a world that’s filled with so many wars, famines and failings of the human condition that reassures you there’s a chance it could all be alright when you see someone who’s at the top of their profession taking time out to help fan the flame of the aspiring next generation.  Similarly the interview footage of Jim Henson and Kevin Clash draw some remarkable, and unintentional parallels that will leave fans of The Muppets filled with euphoria that their beloved institution is in safe hands post Henson.

One criticism of Being Elmo : A Puppeteer’s Journey is the lack of signage.  The film has is in the fortunate position that it has an abundance of stock footage to rely on rather than just talking heads but you never really have a sense of what year you are in and as there’s no on screen indication it can be a little distracting.

Where Being Elmo really comes into it’s own is when Kevin reaches Sesame Street and is given a puppet another performer simply can’t establish a connection with.  Kevin’s puppet making ability, up to this point, is well documented and some of his creations are hugely entertaining so it’s actually rather poetic that the one puppet he will have a true bond with comes from another creator.  It’s actually more of a love connection than anything as Kevin connects with this difficult puppet and in searching for it’s identity hits on something that’s helped him achieve his goals.  Kevin’s presence on Sesame Street is down to the love and support of his parents, the unconditional bond between family and it’s this that he channels into Elmo.  The rest of the film sees how Kevin’s rise through the organisation runs parallel with that of Elmo (not just through the puppet cast of the show but also in the affections of the world’s youth).  With the most poignant moments showing Elmo comforting a dying child on the set of Sesame Street while he (Kevin) misses another hallmark occasion with his own daughter.

It’s Elmo’s emotional connection with the worldwide audience and Kevin’s insistence on being the only operator of Elmo that leads to his divorce, the tragedy only goes to add another level to his story and to the remarkable bond he has with the little guy.

Being Elmo : A Puppeteer’s Journey is an extremely emotional story of how one man’s dream can have a positive and lasting effect on the world.  It’s not the most important story, it’s not the biggest story and the structure of the documentary is no different from any other you’ll watch but what it has is beauty.  At the films core is how love can make things better and who can criticise that?  A must for all fans of all things Henson and if you get the chance the perfect film to watch alongside The Muppets.


Ty said...

Good review! This looks like a very interesting documentary. Will definitely check this out.

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