This review was originally published on June 13, 2011…
Not many people have the drive and conviction to see their childhood dreams realized. If it were commonplace, you wouldn’t be reading this review because I would be too busy being an astronaut/actress/veterinarian to write it. Kevin Clash is one man who was able to turn his childhood dream of being a puppeteer on Sesame Street into a reality. Constance Marks’ documentary, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” is as fun and charming as the iconic red monster himself.
Since he was a little boy growing up in Baltimore, Kevin Clash knew he wanted to be a puppeteer. Like many children who faithfully watched “Captain Kangaroo,” “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” Clash longed to dive into the magical world he saw on TV. Only Clash didn’t just want to hang out with Muppets. He wanted to create and operate them. He scrutinized the images on the screen, trying to figure out how the puppets were made and brought to life. When he was 10 years old, he made his first puppet out of the lining of his father’s coat. The Clash family was not well to do, but the puppet was so good that Clash’s dad wasn’t mad. He just said, “Next time, ask.”
Clash started putting on shows around the neighborhood and soon landed a job on a local children’s show. It wasn’t until his mother cold-called head Muppet designer Kermit Love that Clash set out on the path to becoming the man behind one of the most beloved characters in the history of children’s television.
At this point, I may have lost some of you. But I promise that this feel-good movie really will make you feel good. For one thing, who doesn’t love the Muppets? Anyone born after 1970 will surely have connected with at least one of Jim Henson’s creations. There were so many characters and personalities, represented in the Muppet world and even the grouchiest among them were still lovable. One of the coolest things about Marks’ film is that it’s not just the story of Clash and Elmo. It’s also a first-hand account of what it was like to be part of the Jim Henson Company from its infancy. It’s remarkable how much of Clash’s journey took place on camera from his audition for Captain Kangaroo to behind-the-scenes work on his first Henson film (“Labyrinth”) and his eventual rise to lead puppeteer on “Sesame Street.” At his first visit to Kermit’s workshop when he was a teenager, Clash finally learns the Jim Henson stitch that had eluded him for so long. You can actually see him light up on camera as his years-long curiosity is sated. “Being Elmo” is a rare opportunity to watch what is essentially an entire career in fast motion.
The staggering talent on screen may also entertain you. Sure, he’s been practicing puppeteering since he was a child, but the fluidity with which Clash brings Elmo and other puppets alive is completely mind-blowing. We see a little bit of how he works when he teaches puppeteering to the cast of the French “Sesame Street.” He can turn any flapping-mouthed Muppet into a nuanced character with the slightest hand motion. He explains that you must always keep the puppet alive even when they aren’t speaking. It sounds so simple, but when you watch him work, you can see that it takes tremendous skill to pull it off.
If Muppet love or puppet mastery doesn’t hook you, then maybe Elmo himself will do it. When Clash first got a hold of the puppet, Elmo was a gravelly-voiced simpleton. Most people could take him or leave him, including the original puppeteer. Clash gave Elmo a complete overhaul by creating the hook behind the character. In his own words, “Elmo is love.” He modeled the character after his own sweet, loving, unconditionally supportive parents and made him enthusiastic, fun loving and all about the hugs. In one indicative scene, a terminally ill child has chosen to spend one of her last days with Elmo. If that doesn’t make your eyes well up then you need to take a nap inside a Tauntaun because you are ice cold.
It’s unusual for an artist with that amount of innate talent to lead a drama-free life. But apart from one divorce and some difficulty finding time for his own daughter, Clash is a totally normal guy. Better than normal since he spends the majority of his time on the road bringing Elmo to the people who love and need him. Near the end of the film, Clash speaks to a young aspiring puppeteer on the phone and decides to repay the universe by offering him a tour. The precocious little boy on the other end of the line is Clash’s career doppelganger. He absorbs every tidbit that Clash gives him and shows off his own homemade puppets. Unless something goes horribly wrong, this kid will be the next Kevin Clash. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
It took six years for Constance Marks to assemble “Being Elmo” and her diligence shows on screen. But in many ways, the story sells itself. Clash’s tale proves that you don’t have to overcome extreme adversity to have all your dreams come true. Though, as Clash notes, Elmo is so much bigger than him. “Kids need Elmo” he says, “ and Elmo needs kids.” Elmo is practically a modern-day Jesus (without all that messy crucifixion stuff). He makes people happy because he offers them unconditional love. Who can argue with a sentiment like that? Assholes. That’s who. But even if you are an asshole, Elmo loves you anyway.