Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Quick Film Thoughts: Being Elmo

©2011 Constance Marks Productions. Elmo character ©2011 Sesame Workshop.

Kevin Clash's rags-to-riches story seems like something out of fantasy or fiction: a young black man from Baltimore starts to create puppets for fun as a kid, and as a teenager, his talent finds himself rubbing elbows with Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan and Jim Henson, among others. You probably don't know Kevin Clash, but you do probably know his long-time companion, a little red guy with a high-pitched voice by the name of Elmo. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is a sweet documentary that shows Clash and those he has worked alongside and know him closest telling his story first-hand.

For the most part, it seems like a good portion of Clash's success is based on "being at the right place at the right time"- Elmo literally fell into his hands, after Richard Hunt got fed up with performing the character and threw Clash the Elmo puppet to see if he could do anything with it. (Footage of Hunt's Elmo is seen in the film- it almost seems like a Bizarro Elmo compared to the character we know now, speaking in a similar fashion to the modern if not a bit more Cro-Magnon but acting a bit more mischievous. A funny outtake of Clash as Elmo attacking a Muppet piece of cheese shows the difference between the two- even when Clash's Elmo is clowning around, he still seems like the Elmo we know and love). But it's also very clear that Clash would not have gotten as far as he has if it were not for his natural talent. Seeing him help train Muppeteers for the French version of Sesame Street, you can clearly see this as he gives little bits of advice to them: keep the puppet's mouth open a little to make it look like they're smiling. When someone is talking to them, have them look inquisitively and nod. If the puppet has to scratch its head, have its head move down a bit so the rod on the arm can't be seen on-camera. It's seems so complicated, but Clash is somehow able to make it second nature.

You can't help but end up with a smile on your face when this film ends. The life of Kevin Clash (and Elmo) is (thankfully) not one filled with controversy or scandal*, but it does have his complications: Elmo's rise to fame was so sudden and made Clash so busy that he for the most part was literally not able to see his daughter grow up. But he does manage to give her a very sweet send-off when she turns 16 before she heads off to college- not surprisingly, with a little help from Elmo. Seeing this, and the way children react to Elmo, seems to show the natural talent that Clash has. Clash states that he feels Elmo represents love, and it's clear to see this.

Some people think that Elmo ruined Sesame Street, but Being Elmo seems to show both the amazing life story of Kevin Clash and the "Elmo" of Elmo. Both are hard to describe in words. Elmo clearly seems to be both the opposite of Kevin Clash's personality but also an extension of him- given his high-pitched voice and enthusiasm, it's possible he can represent the child in Clash and allows him to let it out. Kevin Clash himself was self-taught, but then was lucky enough to become a part of Jim Henson's inner circle. No one will be able to replace or overshadow the genius that was Jim Henson, but as far as puppeteers go, it's possible that Clash is the closest thing to a second-generation Henson: he was literally raised on Jim's creations and, like Henson himself, decided to experiment with puppets and ended up giving a voice and a personality to a character who, much like Henson's legendary Kermit the Frog, serves today as one of Sesame Street and Muppet characters's most famous faces, entertaining adults and (especially) children just by being himself. For Kevin Clash, the answer to "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" was "just be yourself." Both of them seem to have clearly benefited from it. Being Elmo is a wonderful feel-good film, and is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for fans of Sesame Street, Muppets, Jim Henson, or anyone who just wants to see an amazingly sweet true story. Elmo loves you (as he loves to remind us), and we love him for it.

*UPDATE (February 28, 2013) - When I originally wrote this review nearly a year ago, I wrote that "[t]he life of Kevin Clash (and Elmo) is (thankfully) not one filled with controversy or scandal". Sadly, as the events that led to Clash's resignation from Sesame Street revealed, this is no longer the case. Being Elmo remains an incredibly sweet documentary about how one man made his dreams come true, but rewatching it in the wake of how those dreams sadly came to an end is bittersweet, as it shows what a great loss to the worlds of Sesame Street, puppeteering, and entertainment in general the departure of Kevin Clash is.

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