Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Director: Constance Marks
If the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” spotlights some fascinating occupations that many of us wouldn’t necessarily rush to embrace as our own, then “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” tells the tale of a job every bit as quirky and atypical, and seemingly a lot more fun, and better smelling. More specifically, it tells the life story of Kevin Clash, an African-American kid who grew up in the 1970s in Baltimore, and eventually would find fortune, if not fame, as the voice of Elmo, a breakout “Sesame Street” character that became a full-fledged zeitgeist phenomenon, spreading from the preschool and adolescent set into the broader culture at large.
Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it was awarded with a special jury prize. Mixing archival footage, sit-down interviews and other material from the present day, filmmaker Constance Marks delivers a tapestral, feel-good tale of outside-of-the-box self-actualization, replete with loads of rare, behind-the-scenes glimpses at “Sesame Street,” “Captain Kangaroo” and other pieces of Jim Henson’s legacy. For those who ever had dreams outside the mainstream, “Being Elmo” tickles those fanciful reminiscences, in a heartening way.
Sensitive and candid, Clash is an engaging subject, if also sometimes unable to fully articulate the experiential depths of his teenage obsession with puppets, and how it made him feel. Chronicling the scissored destruction of his father’s coat is one thing, and certainly amusing. But movies like “Make Believe,” about teenage magicians, and even the Scottish dance documentary “Jig,” in every other respect a much lesser film than “Being Elmo,” each spent at least a bit of time reflecting inward and addressing the subjects’ feelings about their interests and finely honed talents.
What else “Being Elmo” misses are a few small but telling things. Viewers see Clash in Paris, instructing puppeteers on hand movements and other techniques for an upcoming live stage show. And there’s nice material on the Henson workshop where Elmo, Bert, Ernie and other characters are constructed from drawers full of elements, and reams of felt, fur and the like. But the movie doesn’t really address how, if at all, puppeteers see and refine their own work. And neither does it really address the scripting process, which seems strange. While Clash — who took over the physical puppet of Elmo from a colleague who determined he’d hit a creative dead end — talks about the creation of the character, and the breakthrough of building it around the defining characteristic of Elmo’s love of hugs, and bodily contact, Marks’ movie makes it almost seem like huge portions of “Sesame Street” are improvised, which surely can’t be the case.
These quibbles aside, “Being Elmo” still has a certain warmth, and emotional resonance. The reason for the character’s popularity seems clear — Elmo expresses unconditional love, and support. In many ways, he’s a little, red, furry manifestation of the support that Clash’s parents provided him, when he had this crazy dream so outside the boundaries of their socioeconomically depressed, lower-middle-class experience. For some little kids, that feeling is, sadly, virtually unknown in their home lives, and very much a sort of lifeline, which reveals itself in unusually strong attachment. For every child, though, that embrace — both literal and figurative — is important. Elmo is a giver, and Clash’s story one bound to put a soft smile on your face.
Written by: Brent Simon