Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
February 1st, 2011

Rating: 3/5

Director: Constance Marks
Cast: Kevin Clash, Bill Barretta, Fran Brill

BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY is that rare sort of documentary that is easy to forget about – a thoroughly lovely one. It’s a film about a very nice man who gets to play with puppets all day, because he loves it. Kevin Clash is a puppeteer – more specifically, he’s a muppeteer. And, if we’re really getting to the heart of it, Kevin Clash is Elmo, favored Sesame Street muppet of the younger set, famous for tickles and giggles, trademarked by his red fur and off-beat grammatical choices.

BEING ELMO follows Clash’s journey from putting on his own puppet shows in his backyard to, well, being Elmo (and an integral part of the Sesame Street machine). As a child, Clash was obsessed with puppets – he was absorbed with watching every television show that featured puppetry, he was an early devotee of Jim Henson and the Muppets, and he even built his own puppets from the time he was old enough to sew. For Clash, there has never been a life (or a career possibility) without puppets. As BEING ELMO progresses, it becomes clear that Clash’s talent and motivation put him in the unique position to not only excel at his chosen craft, but to do it with frightening ease.

The film glosses over the personal problems Clash faced in his adult life – you’ll notice that his ex-wife is only ever referred to as his ex-wife; BEING ELMO never shows us any times of marital bliss (or strife). We do learn that Clash’s professional life swelled into becoming his entire life in the wake of burgeoning Elmo popularity, particularly after the arrival of Tickle Me Elmo. Clash’s struggles in being an available father to his daughter are shrunk down to one segment that shows his appearance at her Sweet Sixteen. Interestingly enough, her birthday cake is adorned with Elmo and Clash presents her with a video containing birthday greetings from a number of celebrities. It’s a small bit that touches on the different parts of Clash’s life, rubbing up against each other, a bit that is worthy of expansion it never receives from the film.

The job of a puppeteer is unexpectedly complex – puppeteers don’t just voice their puppets, they are also responsible for moving them, play a hand in their physical creation, and are the heart of their actual personality. Elmo was already a character on Sesame Street before Clash took him over, but the puppet was rarely used because none of the other puppeteers had found the right notes to hit with him – no one really knew how to flesh him out. But Clash could clearly see the potential of what Elmo could represent. For Clash, Elmo was the best of what a puppet could be – something “true and good and meaningful.” Elmo was to represent love, and Clash’s work made that so. There is no Elmo without Clash, and BEING ELMO makes it apparent that there would probably be no Clash without Elmo.

Director Constance Marks uses a clever mix of old and new footage to tell Clash’s story, some of it seemingly miraculous in its very existence. On occasion, however, Marks uses some clunky animation from photographs to recreate scenes, and the work weighs down the flow of the story, particularly when it’s put up against all that wonderful archival footage. Whoopi Goldberg narrates the story capably, an excited and involved voice for similarly themed information. Fans of Sesame Street and the Muppets will delight in the Henson-focused footage that appears in the film’s later half.

BEING ELMO is a touching and kind documentary that presents its audience with a charming story of dreams followed and dreams fulfilled, without worrying about the price to get there. True to Elmo form, the film is very much about love and gentleness, a sanitized and kid-friendly take on the cost of a dream.

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