The documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” is like an 80-plus minute hug from an old friend. An old, furry friend to be precise.
Turns out the man who gives life to the “Sesame Street” muppet is a tall, soft-spoken black man who dreamed of being a puppeteer all his life. His story – that of a lower middle class lad whose talents led him to muppet guru Jim Henson – provides the kind of sweet, comforting material too rarely seen in the documentary format.
[youtube oRotWuJNIQA nolink]
It’s the American Dream on a deeply private scale, and director Constance Marks captures it with an effervescence that honors both the puppeteer and Elmo himself.
“Being Elmo” isn’t an expose on the puppeteering world or an examination of the cultural biases found on PBS’s “Street.” It’s the tale of a boy who became entranced by the art of puppetry and had the talent and support of his family to transform that love into a career.
Young Kevin Clash made his first puppet from his father’s winter coat – without pappy’s permission. His Dad didn’t scold him for ruining a perfectly good jacket, a paternal gesture that may have cemented Clash’s fate.
The youngster went on to make many more puppets, all the while studying the work of Henson’s “Sesame Street” menagerie as well as those wacky “Muppets” a few years later. He eventually forged a bond with white-haired puppeteer Kermit Love, a mentoring relationship which paved the way for Clash’s first meeting with Henson, the unofficial King Muppet himself.
Clash bounced from one gig to another, eventually landing on “Sesame Street” as part of the show’s crew. But it wasn’t until a fellow puppeteer threw down an untested red puppet named Elmo in disgust – the artist couldn’t bring the muppet to life – that Clash’s fame took shape.
Parents may find Elmo’s high-pitched voice a tad nerve jangling, but just watching Clash at work is a joyous experience. His warm, ready smile makes him more than ready for his close-up even if he says he tends to be shy in public.
Even better is watching him make dreams come true for sick children. Too often dying boys and girls request a visit from Elmo, and Clash is more than happy to oblige. After all, the through line in Elmo’s World is the joy he brings to others. Elmo is quick with a hug or a kiss, and children can’t help but respond to his good soul.
The same may be said for Clash, although the film tip-toes around his divorce and strained relationship with his daughter. Being Elmo means spending far too many hours jetting around the world, and that formed a wedge between father and child.
Marks brings a calm, reassuring presence to the film. The black and white photographs glow under her care, and it’s wonderful that someone was shooting Clash during pivotal moments in his life, such as his first meeting with Love.
The film also reveals the artistry behind the muppets. We see massive draws where a variety of eyeballs, fur tufts and other muppet pieces await use, and we watch Clash gently instruct neophyte puppeteers on precisely how to bring life to clumps of felt, fur and plastic.
“Being Elmo” will put a silly grin on your face, the kind Elmo has been giving to children since he first stepped foot on Sesame Street.