If I told you that there was a documentary about a Jim Henson Studios muppeteer who has been responsible, for the last many years, for breathing life into one of your childrens’ favorite characters, and I also told you it was quite excellent, you would likely expect one of two things. You would either expect it to show the kind of man the parent in you hopes he is — a charming, humble lovely man who just wants to make kids happy — or to show the kind of man the cynic in you expects he is — a drunk vulgarian who loves strippers and hates children in a way that would put Shel Silverstein to shame.
Being Elmo introduces us to Kevin Clash, the man responsible for Elmo. Growing up as a kid outside of Baltimore, Clash fell in love with puppets on “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sesame Street” and, at an early age, started making his own muppets. His very first one was made out of the black, furry inside lining of his father’s coat. And one of the many wonderful things about the film is that his father wasn’t mad — both his parent were insanely supportive of him, eventually letting him take over their bedroom with shelves and shelves of muppet-like puppets (even as a kid, Clash could sew an impressive muppet).
Clash puts on puppet shows for the kids at his mother’s day care, then gets on a local TV show, and then winds up in landing a gig in New York City, on his beloved “Captain Kangaroo.” No surprise, Clash eventually winds up at “Sesame Street” where another muppeteer eventually gives him a red felt creation that he’s been having no luck with and Clash creates the Elmo that your children know and love.
I’ve left out a lot of the details and steps along the way, of course, and they certainly don’t matter for the purposes of this review. There are really just a few things you need to know. First is that Clash is insanely good at what he does. Elmo is his most famous muppet, though he’s also responsible for one of my random childhood favorites (Felinghetti Donizetti) and one of my modern favorites (the dreadlocked Clifford who hosted “Muppets Tonight”). Since being at “Sesame Street,” he’s risen way up the ranks, and is currently the Senior Puppet Coordinator, Muppet Captain and the Senior Creative Consultant for Sesame Workshop, where the critters are made. In fact, the film shows us that when France’s version of “Sesame Street” is getting up and running, Clash is the one who goes to teach them how to give their muppets life.
Second, Clash is a very likable. He’s kind of shy, but opens up well to the camera. He’s humble, warm and likable. In fact, he’s so likable that I was really disappointed, late in the film, to find out that he’s divorced, because he seems like he should be perfect (the film doesn’t say, but it’s suggested that his commitment to his job and Elmo is what caused the end of his marriage).
Third, Being Elmo is just a feel-good film. You may not love Elmo, himself, but who doesn’t love muppets? It’s not an earth shattering documentary that causes you to think or furthers some debate but, like Clash himself, it’s just a warm and lovely little film, with levity and heart. And god damn it, sometimes it’s nice to see a documentary that just lets you walk out of the theater with a smile.
Plus, it gives me the excuse to embed this great clip yet again (which did make a brief appearance in the film):
BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer’s Journey premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Documentary Competition.