[This is a re-print of my review from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival]
After watching the first several minutes of Constance Marks’ documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, I realized I could watch an entire movie of just Elmo giving people hugs. But the heartwarming story of Elmo’s puppeteer Kevin Clash is also good. The movie doesn’t have much in the way of conflict, but it provides a great narrative of a man who pursued his life-long dream as well as a fascinating look inside the world of puppetry. While younger viewers may be a bit disappointed that Elmo isn’t the dominate figure in the movie, all audiences will be won over by Clash and how he made his dream come true.
Everyone knows and loves the popular Seasme Street character Elmo, but few are aware of his puppeteer, Kevin Clash. The documentary tells how Clash grew from humble origins in Baltimore and loved the escapism that shows like Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street provided. He was so taken by puppets that he decided to turn his father’s fur coat into one. To his parents’ eternal credit, they only scolded him for not asking permission first. The movie then follows Clash’s career doing puppet shows for local kids, his introduction and tutoring under Jim Henson’s chief muppet engineer, landing jobs on two kids TV shows, working on Henson’s Labyrinth, and finally taking over the role of Elmo.
Stories tend to run on conflict, but they don’t always have to. Being Elmo wouldn’t be any more rewarding if it turned out that Clash had beaten drug addiction or had some other demon in his past. Clash’s tale appeals to our desire to see through-lines in an individual’s life. When post people are expected to have multiple careers over the course of their lifetime, it’s uplifting to see someone who knew what he wanted to do when he was a kid and found a way to do it. So many of us watched and loved Seasme Street but Clash never “grew out of it”. He found not only the world Sesame Street magical, but the show made him curious about the art of puppetry.
The film does a great job of showing that puppetry is much harder than it looks. Marks follows Clash to France where he’s teaching puppeteers how to handle the muppets. Things you would never think to consider, like “What’s the best way for Elmo to scratch his head” or “How should the mouth move when the muppet speaks,” turn out to be far more complex than previous thought. Audiences who see this film will leave with not only an appreciation of Clash but for the amount of work puppetry requires.
Being Elmo isn’t a complex movie. It’s not even a visually consistent movie as the interviews with Clash, which were done over a six year span, sometimes have him looking directly into the camera to answer a question and sometimes looking at the off-screen interviewer. But that doesn’t matter because it excels at what it sets out to do: tell a real-life inspirational story about the man behind one of the most beloved characters in the world. The result is the cinematic equivalent of a great big hug.