Being Elmo (2011) D: Constance Marks and Philip Shane

Being Elmo : A Puppeteer's Journey

Being Elmo

Since November of 1969, the vibrant and original PBS institution that is Jim Henson’s Sesame Street has been enthralling, entertaining and educating children all over the world. Sesame Street features a cast of iconic muppets including Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as well as human hosts and a swathe of lesser known muppets. Among them is a furry red monster called Elmo who has had various voices and personalities since the 1970s. One day in 1984, a young puppeteer gave him the voice and the personality that has since seen him become the show’s most enduring character – and the only non-human to ever testify before U.S. Congress.

Kevin Clash is Elmo’s puppeteer, and Being Elmo : A Puppeteer’s Journey is a look at the career path and passion of Clash. As Whoopi Goldberg narrates, the viewer is introduced to a kid from Baltimore who grew up obsessed with television and puppets. Making his first puppet from his Father’s trenchcoat, Clash was amazed by the seamless construction of the Henson muppets and set about trying to discover how it was done. He got the chance in 1978 when he met Kermit Love, a puppeteer who designed some of Henson’s best known puppets including Big Bird and soon introduced Clash to Henson.

To tell the story of Kevin Clash and Elmo, Directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane have assembled incredible archival footage that stretches as far back as Clash’s home movies as a teen performing puppet shows for the neighbourhood children, through his first meeting with Kermit Love and even the Macy’s Day Parade where he performed the role of Cookie Monster in his first Sesame Street gig. Coupled with interviews with his supportive parents and bemused siblings, admirers and former employees, as well as animated archival photos, Being Elmo creates an expansive, detailed portrait of a man who is exceptionally passionate about what he does and does it well.

More than a look at Clash’s career, Being Elmo can be read as a loving tribute to Jim Henson, the man whose vision and talent have given the world not only Sesame Street and The Muppets, but beloved family films such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and the instantly recognizable Yoda from the Star Wars franchise. Almost every interview, every explanation and every frame in the film is fleshed out with the thread of Clash’s and others’ love for Henson and his legacy.

The film is warm and fuzzy like it’s muppet subject. It shows the dedication and talent of Kevin Clash, as well as his motivation to make Elmo the embodiment of love to children everywhere. What permeates this love and light though is the obvious sacrifices that Clash has made – missing important moments and quality time with his family while travelling the globe entertaining millions. The film doesn’t dwell too long on any of these sad implications though, which is perhaps its one flaw. It is obvious that Clash’s life as Elmo has taken an enormous toll on his real life but, much like Elmo himself, the film preferred to stay bright, upbeat and warmly happy. What was left out was quite telling – including any detail about Clash’s divorce from wife Genia.

Reluctance to ask the hard questions aside, Being Elmo is a wondrously entertaining look at the man behind a now much cherished character. Elmo has attracted a great deal of ire from stalwart fans of Sesame Street for speaking without pronouns and lowering the overall educational value of the preeminent show. Marks and Shane’s insight into Kevin Clash should soften even the most cantankerous critic, simply because the man is likable, warm, giving and completely, unselfishly dedicated to his craft and to continuing the legacy of the great Jim Henson. When a young girl who wants to be a puppeteer is brought to meet Clash near the end of the film, the parallels to himself and Kermit Love are lovingly held out for all to see. This film has its heart on its sleeve – and its heart is huge.

An enchanting tale of an artist and a world of muppet magic. 4.5 stars.

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~ by mfnm on January 15, 2012.

One Response to “Being Elmo (2011) D: Constance Marks and Philip Shane”

  1. Like your article here! Very interesting and handy! Awesome work!

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