Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
Directed by Constance Marks, Philip Shane. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. (2011, PG, 76 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 2, 2011
Okay, I give up: Two Muppet movies that require grown men to carry hankies with them lest they exit the theatre with telltale snufflings and watery eyes? As I noted in my review of the recent and successful reboot of the Muppets franchise, Jim Henson's magical puppetry skills defined a generation or two in terms of what was possible, not only on television but also in real life. As it turned out, many a youngster raised on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show went on to pursue their dreams with creativity and gusto that can be traced directly back to those early days spent staring goggle-eyed at the alleged idiot box. And Being Elmo is a charming, sweet, and altogether wonderful documentary example of the positive influence that PBS has had on youngsters – and their parents – since its inception in 1970. (Shame on those politicians who frequently threaten public broadcasting with budget-cut banishment!)
Being Elmo is something of a rags-to-better-quality-rags-to-riches tale, and a more heartwarming holiday-season documentary you are unlikely to find. It traces the evolution not of the titular Elmo so much as that of the young African-American puppeteer, Kevin Clash, who eventually ended up bringing life, and no small amount of love, to a Muppet that was on the verge of being cast off the show entirely. (Elmo's original puppeteer, we discover, could never find the right mix of vocal style and physical attitude to make the little red guy come acceptably alive.)
Marks and Shane’s documentary is a twofold revelation: We see Clash at 10, living with his family in a Baltimore neighborhood that, with its somewhat grimy, urban appearance, oddly mirrors the dingy stoops and trash-can panache of Sesame Street. Smitten then with the joyous double punch of Captain Kangaroo and Jim Henson's celebrated ’hood, the young Clash begins – with some remarkable and frankly unexpected support from his mother and father – to build his own crude puppets and hold shows in his ratty back yard. This eventually leads to a gig with the local Baltimore television station, and from there to a meeting, at age 16, with legendary puppeteer Kermit Love, who takes the young Clash under his wing and proceeds to teach him everything he knows about puppeteering.
It's not long before Clash meets his childhood idol, Henson, and is brought aboard Sesame Street, first puppeteering an owl character, and then given the chance to make something of the failing Elmo. A shy but genuinely talented puppeteer, Clash adds the high squeaky voice, the hugging, and all the characteristics that eventually spurred Elmo madness (so to speak). A star is born. Two stars, really, as this is as much Clash's story as it is Elmo's.
Despite its short running time, Being Elmo is an engrossingly layered documentary. It touches not only on what it means to be a puppeteer but also on how the imaginary world of play can change young lives – over and over again – for the better. It tells us the dreams we have when we are young aren't just phantoms to be banished along with all those other "childish things" once we begin to grow up. And it serves as an object lesson in the ultimate power of believing in oneself and persevering against long odds and ridicule from others. To paraphrase everyone's favorite amphibian, sometimes it's not easy being what you are or following your heart's desire, but given enough time, talent, and fleece, anything is possible.