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SXSW Review: ‘Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey’

March 22, 2011
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It’s hard to imagine Elmo – the wildly popular, cheerful, red muppet made famous on Sesame Street – sounding like an embittered curmudgeon or a sub-literate caveman,  but if you go back far enough (when he was voiced by Brian Muehl or Richard Hunt) he seemed to suffer from a personality disorder. It wasn’t until 1985 that Elmo would be given the falsetto voice and cheery personality that we know today, when talented puppeteer Kevin Clash began performing the beloved muppet.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (directed by Constance Marks)  is a charming and uplifting documentary about Kevin Clash’s career as a puppeteer. Passionate and creative at a young age, Kevin Clash was inspired by The Captain Kangaroo Show to make his own puppets and put on elaborate shows for the other kids in his neighborhood. As a teenager, Clash had a job performing with his puppets on a local television station in his hometown of Baltimore and eventually met master puppet-builder Kermit Love – who would later introduce him to Jim Henson, his future employer and hero.

His career trajectory is a remarkable one, it’s unusual enough for someone so young to have such a clear vision of their vocation, let alone to achieve the level of success that Kevin Clash has – deservedly – received. Interviews with his family, current and former employers and with Kevin Clash himself reveal him to be an incredibly kind-hearted and charismatic person, not to mention uncommonly talented and passionate about his craft. (I would ordinarily be wary of my being so effusive with praise, but his joyful disposition was so infectious,  it temporarily erased any traces of pessimism I carried with me into the screening).

This documentary features some wonderful – and rare – footage of Kevin Clash as a young man, visiting Kermit Love’s studio and – remarkably, an audition tape that he made when he was 18 years old. Clips from his early work on the Captain Kangaroo Show and Sesame Street provide a backdrop for his story in which his relationships with his mentors are given introspection – a theme which comes full circle when Mr. Clash is contacted by a young girl with an avid interest in puppet-building and puppeteering whom he invites to tour his studio – calling back to his first visit with Kermit Love.

Being Elmo briefly examines the toll that Kevin Clash’s success has taken on his relationship with his daughter Shannon. Clash laments that his work schedule – which gave other children a great deal of happiness – often kept him from spending time with his own child.  It’s clear that he is devoted to her and after she writes a letter asking to spend more time with him, he makes amends with Shannon during her teen years.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who exhibit so much care and commitment to their art and it was fascinating to me to see the amount of skill which goes into puppet building – to say nothing of the kind of intuitive artistry it takes to develop and perform a character. As I mentioned earlier, the warmth and jubilence of Mr. Clash is contagious, I would imagine that even an Old School Sesame Street enthusiast would come away from this doc with a greater respect for Elmo, whom Clash created to be the personification of Love.

Perhaps it is because I am fluent in sarcasm and crankiness, I’ve always favored the more mal-content and ill-tempered muppets. That said, I found this film (which wears it’s tender-hearted nature on it’s furry, shag-fleece sleeve) about a man whose tremendous love for his craft is actually overshadowed by his own ebullient personality – to be completely refreshing. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is a sincere and disarming film, leaving a sour-puss like me in fits of giggles – and with a newfound appreciation for Elmo.

 

 

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