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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)

March 3, 2012

 

written by: Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein

produced by: Constance Marks, Corinne LaPook & James Miller

directed by: Constance Marks

rating: none

runtime: 80 min.

U.S. release date: January 14, 2011 (2011 Sundance Film Festival), October 21, 2011(limited)

DVD release date: April 3, 2012 – now streaming on Netflix

 

There are many out there who make fun of Elmo, the furry red child monster who’s lived on Sesame Street since 1985. They may find his high-pitched laugh and sing-songy voice more of an annoyance than an infectious delight. At first, I’ll admit – a little Elmo goes a long way, but the more you hang out with him (as many celebrities do) you’ll see a clever humor, an optimistic spirit, and most importantly, a character of who loves to love and give hugs. What’s not to like about that? But the straightforward “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, isn’t about Elmo at all really. It’s a moving and inspiring documentary about Kevin Clash, the person behind the puppet. Like the Oscar-winning song from “The Muppets”, Clash is both a manly muppet and a muppet of a man.

Like his idol, Sesame Street creator Jim Henson, Clash displayed an early love for puppetry while growing up in Baltimore in the late 60s/early 70. His passion first manifested itself when he cut up the furry lining from his father’s trenchcoat to create a monkey. Young Kevin thought he might get in trouble for that impulsive creative act, but his supportive father simply wanted him to ask next time. Kevin’s mother ran a day care out of their home, which is the first audience he would test his puppets on by performing shows in the backyard that would gain a fervent word of mouth in the neighborhood. Despite his sisters and other kids his age, Kevin remained steadfast in following his heart and eventually landed a gig on a local television station.

 

 

His work there led to other job opportunities, such as a local children’s show called “Caboose” and “The Big Blue Marble”, something Kevin just couldn’t believe. His life really changed though when he met Kermit. No, not that Kermit, but rather Big Bird creator and master puppeteer, Kermit Love. Kevin’s determined mother managed to contact Love and eventually he was able to make the trip to New York City to visit Love at his studio. The skinny Santa Claus-looking Love was very gracious and inviting to Kevin, taking him under his wing instantly, teaching him how to better work and voice puppets. His relationship with Love led him to fulfill one of his dreams – walking down Sesame Street and meeting many of the puppeteers he already knew by name.

Eventually, in his twenties, Clash found himself working two jobs, “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster” bringing life to many repeat characters on those shows. Much to his dismay, his commitment on those two shows conflicted with an offer he had from Henson himself to work on “The Dark Crystal”. But his encounter with Henson led him to another dream gig – working as a puppeteer on Sesame Street, where he created characters like Hoots the Owl and Baby Natasha. Like destiny, one day Elmo landed on his lab backstage after veteran puppeteer Richard Hunt gave up on the floundering character. Kevin immediately found a voice for Elmo, drawing on his own youth as an influence, determining that the character would be all about love and giving hugs.

For his target audience, this approach would prove to be an obvious hit and as Elmo became a huge sensation, Clash began to realize the important impact he could have on children. He began to do meet-and-greets with Elmo, where sick children would come to get their Elmo wish-fulfillment met and he would also visit children’s hospitals where kids were thrilled to meet their furry red friend in person. The success of Elmo led Clash to other opportunities, like finally doing a feature film with Henson on “Labyrinth” and working more closely with Henson and his fellow puppeteer Frank Oz. He also got to play Splinter in the first two live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies and would be involved in many of the post-Henson Muppet movies, like “Muppets Treasure Island” and “Muppets in Space.” Now in his fifties, Clash remains a Muppet Captain on the Sesame Street show and also serves as a producer, with seemingly the same wonder and zeal that he’s always had.

 

 

Director Constance Marks was so impressed with Clash after he took the time to make a videotape gift as Elmo for her daughter (her husband was the connection, having once worked as a director of photography on Sesame Street) that she was motivated to make a documentary of him. I’m glad she did. Her approach is no-frills and simple, allowing narrator Whoopi Goldberg to guide as through Clash’s life and unique career path, while allowing Clash himself to talk to take and others as he takes us on a tour of his old neighborhood and behind the scenes at the Sesame workshop. Throughout all this, Clash remains just as excited about the profession as he was when was a kid. He is just as moved as we are when we see how impacting Elmo is to so many.

So, it comes as no surprise to see Clash paying it forward. Marks follows him to Paris, where we see him training puppeteers, showing them how to use their arms and hands as well as their voices in order to give life to these characters made of foam, fleece and felt. We also see him reciprocating the same impact Kermit Love had in his life, by giving a tour to a young girl, who seems just as knowledgeable in the ways of puppetry as Clash was at her age. It’s obvious how rewarding such an experience is for Clash, making the viewing experience all the more rewarding. Thankfully, Marks doesn’t deliver a straight-up bio-doc, it’s more like the title says: a journey and an inspiring one at that.

 

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

 


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