Sundance Review: 'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey'
Kevin Clash and Elmo share the documentary spotlight
PARK CITY - Like so many kids from my generation (and generations older and younger), I was raised on "Sesame Street."
But like most people my age and older, Elmo was never a part of my direct "Sesame Street" experience. The pronoun-starved, red hug-machine we know him today didn't exist. There was a similar-looking character with a similar name, but he had a different voice, a different personality and he was such a marginal part of the series that he would generally go unmentioned, to say nothing of unfavorited.
I discussed this on Twitter a few weeks ago, but Grover was always my favorite Muppet. Several followers quickly asked why Oscar the Grouch wasn't my favorite, as if being a grouchy TV critic means that I've always identified with other grouchy things since my earliest days. As I explained at the time, there's a distinction between the Muppet I know I'm most like and the Muppet I most desire to be like. Oscar may be my sign on the Muppet Zodiac, but Grover is my Aspirational Muppet.
I've always resented Elmo for usurping Grover's rightful place in the Muppet hierarchy. Big Bird and Oscar and The Count and Bert and Ernie have mostly been immune to the Elmo explosion of the past 20-ish years, but as Elmo's star has burnt more and more brightly, Grover's star has inevitably faded. Elmo has gotten the recent feature films. Elmo got to visit "The West Wing."
And on Sunday (January 23) afternoon, the Sundance Film Festival played host to the world premiere of "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" a new documentary from Constance Marks, a new documentary that most certainly is *not* about Grover.
The doc, which focuses on Kevin Clash, father of Elmo's modern incarnation, received the most rapturous ovation I've witnessed this Festival. People love Elmo, but it's also pretty clear that "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" is a documentary that plays well to a crowd on its own.
Full review after the break...
If you aren't familiar with Kevin Clash's story, it's a remarkable one. He grew up in the outskirts of Baltimore and became fascinated with puppetry through "Captain Kangaroo" and the early years of "Sesame Street." [A minor irony: The Grover-killer references Grover as his "Sesame Street" favorite and then the lovable, furry blue guy is never mentioned again.] Clash became obsessed with creating his own puppets and learning the trade, going from the guy his high school classmates mocked to a local TV favorite at the age of 18. He worked his way through the Jim Henson system and when Richard Hunt surrendered the Elmo puppet in 1984, Clash took over and, after a few days of deliberating, was able to uncover the the core trait of the New World Elmo:
Elmo is love.
That's scary, right? I mean, if Elmo were to show up on TV on Monday and announce, "I am love" and urge children to follow him in a walk to the sea, we could have another Children's Crusade on our hands.
Not to incite Muppet Wars on this blog, but Elmo annoys me because he panders. With his ultra-adorable high voice, mangled syntax and his compulsive need to embrace and kiss people, Elmo appeals to the lowest Muppet denominator.
In a somewhat similar way, Marks' documentary panders. It's very much a by-the-numbers biopic, focusing on the simultaneously ascending biographies of Clash and Elmo, but the emphasis is strongly on manipulative moments. And darned if it does work nearly every time. I must have been reduced to sniffles and misty eyes on four or five occasions and people around me were definitely crying. Some of it is just primal. Jim Henson is so much a part of my childhood that any tribute to the guy and any memories of his untimely death hit me in a vulnerable spot. On a similar note, who's going to watch Clash and Elmo hugging an entertaining a Make-a-Wish child without getting choked up? A stone, that's who.
Clash's story is not a triumph-over-adversity narrative. Instead, it's about believing in your dreams, committing to them and working hard. Another thing that draws tears is how amazingly supportive Clash's parents are, so much so that it's explained that his Elmo is actually a composite of Mom and Dad. We aren't burdened by Clash talking about all of the people who told him he'd never succeed. No, when Kevin cut out the fur lining of his father's coat to make his first puppet, Dad's only disapproval was that he didn't ask permission first. Clash chose supportive mentors, was good at his job and moved up the ladder without any major bumps along the way.
It's not the sort of rise that normally makes for a good documentary, but it's probably an appropriately smooth arc for a documentary that's determined to play effectively to all possible audiences.
Fortunately for Marks' cause, Clash's dreams were lived out in the media eye and there's an impressive quantity of footage from every step in his journey, dating back to his most primitive puppeteering efforts, including his first audition tape for "Captain Kangaroo," and featuring behind-the-scenes moments from his early Henson career, including his work on "Labyrinth," as well as the slew of "Sesame Street" characters he performed before Elmo literally landed on his lap. The before-and-after footage contrasting Hunt's Elmo -- still unable to form complete sentences, but cursed with a deep and gravely voice -- and the instant Clash transformation into his current form is especially illuminating.
Also aiding Marks' cause is that people have strong reactions to Elmo, whether they're kids or celebrities or entertainment reporters in talk show appearances. Elmo makes people happy and so it's no surprise that watching Elmo make people happy also makes people happy.
Clash himself is a bit of an enigma, both before and after watching the movie. He describes himself as a private person and, indeed, his stories are all designed to reveal as little about himself as well. Interviews with his "Sesame Street" colleagues are every bit as vague about the man himself, relying mostly on platitudes about his professional gifts. Of course, that's why the movie is called "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" and not something like "Kevin Clash: My Life as Elmo" or "Kevin Clash: The Man Behind the Muppet." I'd have watched a more technically inclined documentary focusing on the nuances of the puppeteering craft, but I enjoyed the tidbits about The Henson Stitch, the importance of fleece in puppet-making and the demonstration of how scrunching Elmo's forehead leads to very different emotions.
I've already seen a half-dozen world premieres at this Sundance Festival and none generated anywhere near as much audience enthusiasm as the "Being Elmo" screening. It had the younger-than-normal crowd launching, crying and cheering, especially when Clash brought Elmo out at the Q&A for a particularly endearing photo op with a pregnant fan. Elmo ended the Q&A by urging the audience to vote for the movie in the Sundance US Documentary competition. I don't think Elmo needs to worry. He is love, after all. And even if I don't always reciprocate that love for the character, there's a lot to love in his documentary.
Other Fien Print reviews from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: