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'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey' on 'Independent Lens'

"Captain Kangaroo was a magical place," Kevin Clash explains, "As opposed to the type of place that I lived and the type of people that I saw."


Independent Lens: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Director: Constance Marks, Philip Shane
Cast: Kevin Clash, Fran Brill, Frank Oz, Gladys Cash, Whoopi Goldberg (narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: Submarine Deluxe
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-04-05 (PBS)
Website
Trailer

"Absolutely," says puppeteer Fran Brill, "He is most comfortable in his own skin when he is Elmo." This is the primary point of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, that puppeteer Kevin Clash is expressing himself most insistently as Elmo, offering up endless hugs and kisses. Elmo, says Clash, "represents love."

The route to that representation is remarkably smooth in Constance Marks and Philip Stone's mostly superficial and completely sweet documentary. Along with an array for talking heads who repeat Gill's point, the film -- which premieres on Independent Lens on 5 April -- provides any number of irresistibly adorable images of Clash and/as Elmo.

As a boy, says narrator (and interviewee) Whoopi Goldberg, Clash loved TV, in particular Captain Kangaroo on weekday mornings and Disney on Sunday nights. "Captain was a magical place," Clash explains, "As opposed to the type of place that I lived and the type of people that I saw." The make-believe characters transported the boy Kevin into magical other places, far away from Baltimore's "Chocolate City." As he returns home now, Clash points "across the river" to the metal factory where his dad used to work, the long shot foregrounding a bottle bobbing in the dark water.

Alas, such images leave little for your imagination. But even as the film insists on the stark difference between then and now, it notes as well -- at least in passing -- that Clash is still a bit strange in the strange land of puppeteering. He endured his share of teasing from classmates as he began making puppets and putting on shows for sick children (he was, of course, accused of "playing with dolls"). But even as his sisters resented the attention he got, his parents encouraged his pursuit of art and his expansive imagination.

The film goes on to track the apparently very straight-ahead steps Clash took, from a local TV show, toward New York, where he met Kermit Lowe, Frank Oz, and eventually Jim Henson. Brought on board with the Muppets for Dark Crystal, Clash made his way to an opportunity: when puppeteer Richard Hunt couldn’t sort out how to make Elmo "work," he tossed the puppet into Clash's lap, literally.

The rest may be history. The film doesn't look much at that rest, however. Clash does mention that Henson had no black puppeteers before he came on, and he also notes that his own ex-wife was annoyed by his obsession with taping Elmo's commentary on her pregnancy. "When Gina was pregnant," he says, "I was looking forward to a totally different creation, different from foam and fur and glue." The film cuts from home photos of Gina with big belly and the baby's crib ready and waiting to Elmo. The puppet's voice narrates Gina's walk to the car: "That's your mama, she's going to the hospital to have you right now!" Clash remembers, "Gina's saying, 'Will you put the damn camera down and get in the car?'" This was probably cute, for a minute. Clash goes on to say that when the baby was born, "Gina would get mad at me because I was trying to puppeteer Shannon, moving her legs, moving her lips to make her talk and everything."

The baby story gives way almost immediately to the Tickle Me Elmo "craze." Clash notes his trepidation at the campaign -- "I never used 'me' with Elmo, this isn't going to work." -- even as the film strings together any number of clips showing just how huge Tickle Me Elmo became. "Being away so much," he says, "there were times I was doing shows for children Shannon's age." He worried that he might rather be giving his daughter that time, but he was dedicated to the puppet, to the career, to Sesame Street. And so he went with Henson to Disneyland, appeared on Arsenio with Henson and Kermit, and performed with other Muppeteers at Henson's funeral.

As Clash is upfront about his devotion and gratitude to Henson, he acknowledges as well the contradictions inherent in his relationships with Elmo and his daughter Shannon. When she was preparing to go to college, he says while the film shows you a pensive Clash riding on a train, 'She put together an email." She asked, he narrates, "Please look into giving me some time before I leave to do that." Cut to a close-up of Clash: "That definitely knocked me in the head." Yeah, you know, sometimes, emails can do that.

So you know that he has since made efforts to be a better dad, the film includes video of her 16th birthday party, complete with videotaped best wishes from Jack Black, LL Cool J, and Elmo too: "Elmo loves you very, very much, and see you soon!" It's a happy ending, sort of.

6

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