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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Director: Constance Marks
Cast: Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz

(US DVD: 3 Apr 2012)

Even if you don’t like Sesame Street’s Elmo, you’ll love this film.


Being Elmo tells the story of Baltimore native Kevin Clash, who became obsessed with puppeteering at an early age. He became a staple of the Baltimore television show Caboose by his late teens, and quickly earned the respect of his peers in the industry. By the early ‘80s he was a regular on Captain Kangaroo and later, The Great Space Coaster.


Clash had been welcomed into the Muppet world during his senior year of high school by Kermit Love, the man who built the Muppets along with Jim Henson, though it would be a few years before he would become an integral part of the Muppet universe. Clash was offered work on the Henson film The Dark Crystal but had to decline because of other commitments. A few years later, as the master began work on Labyrinth, Clash was only too happy to participate. By the time of Henson’s death in 1990, the two had become friends.


So how did Clash become Elmo? The furry red figure had been around Sesame Street for more than a decade––with several other actors portraying him and experiencing varying degrees of success––when a frustrated cast member tossed him aside. Seizing the opportunity, Clash connected with the Muppet, deciding almost immediately that Elmo should embody love.


You never feel as though Clash has to portray Elmo to fulfill some void in his own life––in fact, if one is to judge the puppeteers in this film solely on their images, they seem like a remarkably well adjusted lot. Clash is incredibly childlike, although he’s hardly naïve. One senses that Elmo’s ability to love virtually everyone is as much Clash’s creation as his own personality coming through. Watching him work his magic––whether with some of his earlier puppets or with Elmo––is absolutely––and let this word be used without an ounce of hesitation––heartwarming.


That said, Elmo’s runaway success has come at a cost. Clash’s marriage suffered and he missed many important moments in his daughter’s life while off entertaining other children. Today, Clash says, he’s allowed his family to become more of a priority although Elmo may also count as a member of the Clash clan.


Today, Clash is an integral part of the Muppet world, a place that is well earned and the place that seems the only natural one for him.


His peers, including Joan Ganz Cooney (co-founder of the Sesame Workshop), Caroll Spinney (Big Bird, Oscar the Ground), Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Bert), and Bill Barretta (Dr. Teeth, Rowlf the Dog) appear alongside Rosie O’ Donnell, narrator Whoopi Goldberg, and members of the Clash family.


It would be hard to improve upon this film and so the DVD extras, including thoughts from the filmmakers, a Q&A with Clash and the filmmakers at Sundance, an incredibly engaging interview with puppeteer John Tartaglia, and a trailer, among a handful of others, are fine if ultimately unnecessary.


Why? Because watching and re-watching Being Elmo is enough of a reward in itself. It’s the perfect choice for children of all ages, and easily the best of its kind.

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Jedd Beaudoin is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from Wichita State University and hosts Strange Currency six nights week for Wichita Public Radio. His writing has appeared in No Depression and The Crab Orchard Review as well as at websites such as Ytsejam.com and Amazon.com.


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