[8 April 2012]
Inside Elmo is a middle-aged black man. That man is Kevin Clash, a shy, talented puppeteer.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is an upbeat documentary that follows Clash’s career through the succession of events that led to him becoming the first African American Muppeteer to work for Jim Henson.
What could have been a brief featurette that only children would enjoy is in fact a captivating story for grown-ups that’s handled with plenty of care, depth, and intelligence by director Constance Marks.
The film found success at the Sundance Film Festival and in a limited theatrical run, but now it’s available via Netflix streaming and released on DVD. However you view it, Being Elmo is a marvelous portrait of a man consumed with something.
Way before bringing life to Sesame Street’s most popular character, Clash grew up in the rough side of Baltimore and was obsessed with making, operating and voicing puppets when he was just a kid. He was teased for being spending all day with his dolls, but Clash kept pursuing his craft.
In roughly 80 short minutes, Being Elmo tells the story of how someone chased his dreams and became good friends with his idol in the process. As discussed in the film, while still in high school, Clash landed a puppeteering job on a local TV station, and that became his springboard to Captain Kangaroo, Labyrinth, Sesame Street, and all things Henson.
Elmo has charmed countless children and spent time with Oprah, Beyonce, and De Niro, so it makes sense that a lot of his charm comes from his master puppeteer. It’d take a real Grouch to dislike Clash’s cheery persona or the film’s optimistic tone.
The film is adequately narrated by Whoopi Goldberg who also shows up as an interviewee and in a Sesame Street clip. Other prominent interviewees include the (relatively) unsung heroes behind your Muppet-filled childhood like Carroll Spinney and Frank Oz.
Perhaps the real highlight is the astounding amount of archive footage used.
Someone has apparently filmed Clash doing almost everything for his entire life. Even in his early days, you see him creating puppets on his mom’s sewing machine and visiting the legendary puppet maker Kermit Love for the first time while on a senior class trip to New York. You see Clash’s first time performing on television in the ‘70s and an ensemble of puppeteers singing at Henson’s funeral in 1990.
This sort of material adds extra doses of warmth and reality to the feel-good picture. The biggest benefit of all this footage is that every claim about Clash’s lifelong work ethic and good-hearted nature can be easily backed up and therefore better appreciated.
With each passing minute, you’ll be drawn into Clash’s world, which will give you a new appreciation for the work that the legend Jim Henson pioneered.
You realize how this niche art form is something you’ve taken for granted your whole life. Who had ever thought about how each Muppeteer performs an array of voices? Who knew that Henson created a special “invisible” stitch to hide the seams in felt puppets or that a Muppet’s mouth should stay open at least a little bit to give it a lively smile?
Ironically you don’t learn a lot about what it’s actually like to ‘be Elmo,’ maybe because Clash is so shy. Marks only provides glimpses into Clash’s personal life, like a single grumpy mention of his ex-wife or a lingering scene of his daughter Shannon’s “Sweet 16” party.
The film breaks from its polished beat to hint at Clash’s struggles as a father, juggling a busy schedule with being there for his family. There’s a clear suggestion that Shannon wants more face-to-face quality time with her dad, whose job takes him away for weeks on end. Without going deeper, the documentary speeds past personal drama and returns to a story filled with overwhelming positivity, promise and hope.
It’s engrossing to see Clash passionately coach other puppeteers that haven’t achieved his skill level. It’s moving to see his supportive parents beam with pride on screen, as you’d imagine they’ve been doing for decades.
And it’s touching to the point of tears to see Clash, as Elmo, spend time with a terminally ill child and her family. You’ve probably never wanted to cry when you saw Elmo hug someone before, but you will before the movie’s over.
Clash is by no means instantly recognizable on the street, yet his story of determination makes him an instant poster child for the American dream. He persevered against ridicule and astronomical odds and his wildest dreams came true. Being Elmo is an uplifting film that serves as a lesson in the value of wholeheartedly pursuing your passion in order to do something that really matters.
You’ll be tickled that you watched it.