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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011)

Wish and Make a Foundation

I've spent a lot of time in toy aisles the last couple of years, but even before I had a kid, I couldn't stand Elmo. To me, he was the pinnacle of empty but eerily effective marketing ploys: a furry, red sock with big, dumb eyes and a small, dumb vocabulary. His squeaky voice seemed to emit a high-frequency call to parents, who trampled each other for the privilege of spending a day's wages on supporting the Muppet's latest addiction--be it starting a rock band or cultivating a tickle fetish.

After watching Constance Marks' superb documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey--about the inspiring career of Elmo's alter ego, Kevin Clash--I'll never look at any Muppet the same way again. 

Marks and writers Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein build a surprising and very compelling narrative from the get-go. Clash was a shy kid growing up in lower-class Baltimore, surrounded by siblings and other children from the daycare his mother ran. He fell in love with a new TV show called Sesame Street when two characters named Bert and Ernie broke the fourth wall and addressed him directly as their new, special friend. From that moment, Clash was hooked on puppets. His first creation was Mundo the Monkey--which he fashioned from his father's trench coat.

Rather than getting upset, his parents encouraged him to pursue his dream--not only as a way of getting out of Baltimore, but of breaking free of his shell. Years later, after he became a world-famous puppeteer working alongside the likes of mentors Jim Henson and Frank Oz, his colleagues remarked that Clash's true personality only came out when he was pretending to be the myriad characters he'd created over the decades.

In everyday life, Clash comes off as a quiet guy who's extremely confident in his craft. On a trip to help launch the French incarnation of Sesame Street, his passion manifests as slightly unnerved impatience (if you can imagine such a thing); he works closely with puppeteers to define the body language of their characters, not only through subtle hand gestures but also by having them examine their own bodies at rest (if a person's mouth hangs open when they're not moving, he observes, they look strange; a puppet, though, looks like it's smiling).

This dedication and a seemingly innate agreeability propelled Clash from dreaming about working on Sesame Street to landing a job on a local children's television show. Eventually, he moved to New York, where he landed work on two television series (one of them being Captain Kangaroo, another favorite) and got an offer from Henson to work on The Dark Crystal.

Much of Being Elmo doesn't concern Elmo at all. The filmmakers focus on Henson's vision for children's programming and how that changed the destiny of one child. Elmo pops up here and there, but it isn't until the last act that we learn of the character's origin and Clash's role in redefining him. This is the more bitter of the two whirlwinds that defined the artist's life: once Elmo becomes the ubiquitous, insanely popular go-to Muppet, Clash's schedule goes into overdrive. He travels the world, appearing on talk shows, premieres and celebrity events. Clash insists that no one else operate (sorry, "be") Elmo except for him.

This takes a toll on his family life, leading to a strained relationship with his daughter. It's here that the big problems with Being Elmo manifest. I realize I opened my review by calling the movie "superb", and what we're presented with really is. But this feels like half a movie. By the time I thought to ask myself if Clash ever married or had kids, his divorce was being mentioned in passing. Not a word is spoken on the topic of why his marriage fell apart; we can assume it had to do with his creative obsessions and insane schedule, but the ex-wife is never interviewed, and the daughter remains mum (if she was even asked those questions).

Clash begins the film describing himself as a "private person", but it is the job of the documentarian to open up their subjects and give the audience a reason to care. We get a taste of this when Clash talks about the difficulties of appearing in front of children his daughter's age, but there's a key element of his personality that's noticeably absent from the movie.

It raises the question of manipulation, the seed of which is planted in an earlier chapter chronicling his teenage trip to New York. When Clash ditches a senior class trip to visit the workshop of Henson's number two, Kermit Love, anyone familiar with reality television will immediately notice that their encounter has been conspicuously recorded for television--and this was the late 1970s. Shortly thereafter, we hear the story of how Love introduced Clash to Henson at a party. The puppet moguls were excited because Henson "didn't have any black puppeteers."*

This is another fascinating tangent that's just left flapping in the breeze. It feels as though Marks and company wanted to keep things upbeat, touching, and moving along--which is fine, but, dammit, don't tease me with this sinister "B" story and then jingle keys in front of my face. Speaking of distractions, I would have loved to have heard Clash's thoughts on what Elmo's commercialization meant to him; did he have any conflicted feelings about the "Tickle Me Elmo" riots? His greatest contribution to the controversy was to remark that Elmo would never refer to himself as "Me".

Perhaps I digress. Perhaps not.

I don't mean to hate on the movie. I love Being Elmo so much that I wish there was more of it. When Clash pays his success forward by inviting a young puppet enthusiast he'd heard about to his studio, I got a bit weepy--as I did when Elmo greeted the family of a little girl dying of cancer on the Sesame Street set. This movie is a perfect illustration-by-contrast of everything that was crass, commercial, and boring about the recent Muppets movie. Marks, Shane, and Weinstein not only explain why the Muppets are important (yes, I said "important"), they show it, too--rather than indulging in an hour-and-a-half of name-brand nostalgia.

The movie suggests that these lovable creatures are educational vessels as well as therapeutic outlets for the people that make and operate them. It's a heavy idea to consider, but the title is a bit disingenuous. I still don't know what it means to "Be Elmo" or, for that matter, Kevin Clash.

*Today's review is brought to you by the letters "Q", "U", "O", "T", and "A".

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