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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
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by Jay Seaver

"As upbeat and charming as its subject(s)."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: I don't have kids of my own, but I have a four-year-old niece, and Elmo sort of drove her parents up the wall, at least for a while. Something about the high voice, the talking in the third person, and utter omnipresence of the energetic, almost aggressively friendly little red monster makes him connect to kids like few other Muppets have, but at the same time makes adults grumble about how in their day, "Sesame Street"'s Muppets weren't so one-note. There were more sophisticated and less annoying characters, like Grover. "Being Elmo" won't necessarily change that opinion, but it will at least let them appreciate Kevin Clash, the performer who brings him to life.

Like many a parent of Elmo's fans, Clash watched Sesame Street as a kid too, sharing a small house with four siblings in Baltimore. As much as the characters delighted him, he was just as curious as to how the puppets were made and how they worked, and it wasn't long before he was cutting up his father's trenchcoat for materials to make his own. He had a talent for it, and it wasn't long before he was doing shows for his mother's day care kids, then in the parks, and then on local television. He also got to meet two important mentors - Kermit Love, the Santa-bearded puppetmaker who showed him some of the tricks of the trade, and Jim Henson. He'd go through a number of different jobs before landing on Sesame Street, developing a few characters that didn't quite connect (the most notable probably being Hoots the Owl) before picking up a red puppet that veteran puppeteer Richard Hunt just couldn't make work.

Much of Being Elmo is a "local boy makes good" story, and it's a very pleasant and well-made example of the genre. The filmmakers are very fortunate in a number of ways: Their subject is an open, friendly person who never seems to be holding back but brings out extra bits of himself when performing. He's humble and self-deprecating but takes pride in his accomplishments. While some important figures like Love and Henson are sadly no longer with us, Clash's parents are, and the time we spend with them certainly backs up another mentor's claim that they are the inspiration for Elmo's boundless energy and love. Director Constance Marks and the other filmmakers were able to dig up some impressive material from the archives - it's really an incredible stroke of luck that a visit by Clash to Love's workshop as a teenager was recorded for a TV show.

Some of the most intriguing bits are less biographical, though; it's impressive to watch him both ply and teach his craft. There are clips of Sesame Street and Elmo making personal appearances, and they show us how Clash lets himself loosen up a little when performing, creating a character as well as any more conventional actor. And then there are bits when he's meeting with a young would-be puppeteer or training the people who are looking to join the cast of the French version of Sesame Street: He's both a talented enough performer and a good enough teacher that the audience can watch him dissect just what he does to make Elmo come to life and still have it work so well.

Marks and her editors, Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein, do a nice job of pulling everything together; it's a good balance between interviews, seeing Clash in action, and archive footage/photographs. Some things do seem a little conspicuous by their absence - while we see plenty of Clash's parents and siblings when talking about his early life, we don't get to hear from his daughter or ex-wife directly when the subject of how challenging balancing family and his heavy workload can be. And as much as I'm a fan of Jim Henson, there are times when he looms a bit large over the film's subject, although it is interesting to see him portrayed as intimidating and/or impatient.

Of course, by being non-confrontational and admiring like that, Marks and company manage the same thing Kevin Clash and Elmo do - they make the audience feel good. To watch "Being Elmo" is to be charmed by the pair, and that's worth quite a bit. What we see here is not otherwise hidden, despite Clash's tendency to stay behind the scenes, but it's nice to have a reminder that it's there.

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originally posted: 05/02/11 13:57:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video For more in the 2011 Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video series, click here.

User Comments

8/21/13 Shane A beautiful, inspiring documentary 5 stars
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  21-Oct-2011 (PG)
  DVD: 03-Apr-2012



Directed by
  Constance Marks

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