Director: Constance Marks
Cast: Kevin Clash, Elmo
Running Time: 76 minutes
Directed by Constance Marks, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey documents the life and times of Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash. Released in the same week as Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble, this heart-warming documentary proves that in the right hand, a glove puppet can still conjure as much magic and entertainment as your average Hollywood blockbuster.
Traditionally documentaries succeed on the strength of their subjects and here Marks introduces two of the most charming and likeable characters in the business; puppeteer Kevin Clash and his most beloved creation, Elmo. For the uninitiated, Elmo is a furry red puppet with a propensity for referring to himself in the third person, and one of Sesame Street’s most popular characters. Those familiar with this global phenomenon however will know he represents much more than that. For parents he is a highly sought after toy. For children, he is a friend. For his creator Kevin Clash, he is love.
Born in 1960, Clash grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and like many children of his generation spent his formative years in front of the tube. While most children were content to absorb shows like Captain Kangaroo, Clash was already yearning to peak behind the curtain. Such awareness of the mechanics of television and specifically puppeteering at such a tender age is quite remarkable and to their eternal credit his parents, George and Gladys, sought to nourish and encourage it. Though peripheral in terms of the overall story George and Gladys’ love and support for their son shines throughout so it comes as a fitting tribute when Clash reveals Elmo was largely inspired by his father.
At times Clash’s story resembles the stuff of Roald Dahl, a boy who dreams of passing through his TV set in order to visit Sesame Street grows up to work on the show – and yet like Dahl’s stories there are hints of an underlying darkness. Though Marks’ documentary focuses almost exclusively on Clash’s life as a puppeteer, his strained relationship with his ex-wife and daughter suggest success has come with a price.
Marks weaves a wealth of archive material into her narrative and Clash’s journey from self-starter puppeteer through stints at CBS, The Great Space Coaster and Captain Kangaroo is brilliantly evoked. While this material undoubtedly adds texture and context to Clash’s story it is the puppeteer himself who gifts the film a voice. When he speaks of his childhood, be it memories of Sesame Street or his first forays into puppet making, he exudes the same unbridled joy and passion that informs his work.
Heartfelt and utterly beguiling, Being Elmo reminds us to follow our dreams and cherish our imaginations. They should screen it in schools.