Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Ratings (out of five): *** 1/2
Constance Marks' documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey tells the story of a shy black kid, growing up poor in Baltimore. Kevin Clash has a dream, but it has nothing to do with sports or hip-hop music. Rather, he wants to be a puppeteer on "Sesame Street."
This is a great twist for a movie, but Being Elmo does not dwell on it. In fact, it hardly brings up Clash's skin color at all, and it only brings up his former poverty in terms of the obstacles he overcame. For example, in order to meet puppet designer Kermit Love, he had to wait for a school trip to New York; his family couldn't afford train fare otherwise. (What the movie does not explain is why there was a camera present and footage of this first meeting.)
In any case, Clash fell in love with "Sesame Street" the moment he first saw it as a kid, impressed with the fact that it seemed to take place on an actual street in New York, with humans -- as well as puppets -- of different shapes and colors. He began making puppets of his own, cutting up one of his father's coats for its perfect monkey fur.
Through luck, he landed a job on a local kids TV show, which led to a job on "Captain Kangaroo" during its waning years. Then he was asked to actually perform Cookie Monster during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was later that day that he met Jim Henson, and from Clash's description, you'd think he was meeting the Savior Himself.
Indeed, Being Elmo underlines just how influential and important Henson was to a generation of kids, with his homemade entertainments and warm messages. It also paints Clash as perhaps the highest profile person carrying on in that nearly lost tradition.
Clash recounts the heartbreak of having to turn down Henson's first offer, to work on The Dark Crystal, not wanting to give up his regular jobs on "Captain Kangaroo" and "The Great Space Coaster." But later he gets a job on Labyrinth (1986), assigned to a particularly difficult gag, and eventually pulling it off after nearly throwing in the towel.
Finally comes the coveted job on "Sesame Street," and the legendary day when a frustrated veteran puppeteer threw the Elmo puppet in Clash's lap, barking, "See what you can do with this." Clash remembers a lesson from Henson, which was to find "that one thing" that makes a puppet work. For Elmo the answer was both complex and simple: love. Elmo is love incarnate.
Marks includes a sequence of Elmo visiting with a sick "Make a Wish" kid. In any other film, this would have been unbearable, but here it's absolutely wondrous. The moment will melt even the stoniest of hearts.
Being Elmo is a fairly scant 75-minute documentary, filmed with talking heads and clips, and it seems to avoid certain topics, though pictures can tell a thousand stories. When Clash helps to celebrate his estranged teen daughter's birthday, he calls on some celebrity friends to help make a birthday clip reel; the gesture is a little showy, but also genuine, judging from the looks on Clash's and his daughter's faces. The father is reaching out clumsily, but the only way he knows how.
The movie also contains magical behind-the-scenes footage of performers working their magic. It's hard not to gasp at the huge drawers filled with eyes and other pieces for hundreds of Muppets that have yet been invented.
It goes without saying that Clash's "one thing" and his reinvention of Elmo took off like a shot, as anyone who remembers the "Tickle Me Elmo" craze can attest. Elmo is still a welcome presence in pop culture, and though he's a hard act to follow, one wonders what will happen when Clash goes the way of Henson. Yet a scene of Clash meeting with a young fan provides more than enough hope.
The DVD, released by Docurama Films, contains about 30 more minutes of bonus footage, including a Q&A from Sundance. It also includes a trailer for this and other Docurama releases. Whoopi Goldberg narrates.
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