Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Dir: Constance Marks
I don’t cry at movies. I’m not reporting this personal detail in order to perpetuate some imagined reputation for steely masculinity. If anything, I’m a little embarrassed by this and would far prefer if my physical response was in line with my emotional response to great movies as diverse as Blue Valentine and Toy Story 3. I simply want to make it clear that it was an entirely uncommon happenstance for me to find my cheeks as moist as well-used kitchen sponges during the final 15 minutes or so of the new documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.
Even though I can’t deny the level of my response to the film, I can also acknowledge that the driving purpose of the film can sometimes be a little difficult to suss out. The second feature documentary credited to Constance Marks – the remainder of her IMDb filmography is primarily filled with work related to the HBO television series “Real Sex” – Being Elmo is a fairly straightforward portrait of Kevin Clash, who rose from a humble upbringing on the tattered outskirts of Baltimore to become one of the chief creative forces behind the Muppets, especially those fleecy creatures who populate the PBS series “Sesame Street.” Obsessed with the puppets he saw on TV, especially the unique creations of Jim Henson, Clash spent his youthful years in ’60s and ’70s diligently making his own and staging shows for the kids attending his mother’s makeshift household day care. It all started, according to Clash, when he saw the furry lining inside one of his father’s coats and thought, “That would make a great monkey,” as satisfying a story of inspiration as a film can hope to deliver.
Clash’s increasing profile in the community – he was featured on the news, for example, as a feel-good human interest story because he was providing puppet shows for patients at an area children’s hospital – Kevin found himself with a gig on the local station, which in turn led to work in New York City on shows such as “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster.” At around the same time, he was mentored by Kermit Love, one of the most innovate designers in Henson’s shop. That connection led to increasing involvement with Henson’s various projects, including regular work on “Sesame Street.” Clash’s most fortuitous turn occurred when performer Richard Hunt (who was the “meep” behind Beaker, among others) couldn’t quite crack a furry, red monster named Elmo, portraying him with a sort of thuggish voice suited for a truck driver. Frustrated, Hunt tossed the Muppet over to Clash and suggested he give it a try. After some experimentation, Clash settled on a high-pitched, childish voice and a personality based around exuberant, scampish affection. Before long, colossal, perhaps unprecedented popularity for the character followed.
Marks relays all this information crisply and efficiently, helped immensely by the extensive participation of Clash, who offers recollections infused with an almost starstruck marveling at his own good fortune. Much of the film has an earnest, even-keeled quality that can make it come across as an especially robust DVD featurette. While there’s no real reason to hope for the film to suddenly evolve into an exposé, it also barely allows for any hint of setbacks. Even the fact that Clash is divorced gets only glancing notice when he mentions a conversation with his ex-wife (although home video footage shot by Clash as she heads off to the hospital to give birth to their first child certainly indicates that there was a side of the family not amused by the puppeteer’s penchant for joyfully documenting everything, sometimes in character as his most famous creation). The film could use a wider variety of voices, including perhaps a person or two who could talk about the downside of Elmo’s success, something that is only alluded to by Clash.
Still, the primacy of Clash’s voice really adds extra potency to those closing scenes, beginning with shots of Clash among the mourners at Henson’s memorial service, expressing their grief through performing as the Muppets that serve as the outward identity they shared with the great friend and benevolent boss they’ve just lost. He tries to forge connections with his daughter and serves as a kind and knowledgeable creative spirit as different productions of “Sesame Street” are mounted across the globe. Most movingly, he invites a young girl who makes her own puppets into his workspace in a scene that’s a direct echo of his Clash’s transformative experience decades earlier with Love. While it’s staging for the documentary cameras may invite cynicism in some, seeing the sweet purity of a giving spirit come full circle left me happily floored. Even if Being Elmo demurely avoids getting to know absolutely everything about Clash, its inspired kindness in exploring and celebrating the best of him has impact enough. I’ve got the tear-stained tissues to prove it.