Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Elmo and Friend

(2011) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell, Joan Ganz Cooney, Fran Brill, Caroll Spinney, Martin P. Robinson, Bill Baretta, Jim Henson, Bob Keeshan, Kermit Love. Directed by Constance Marks and Phillip Shane

 

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some dream of being an artist, or an astronaut or a hero. Other dreams are smaller than that – some in fact downright pint-sized. Some dreams come covered in fur and foam.

Ever since he was a kid in Baltimore, Kevin Clash dreamed of being a puppeteer. One look at Sesame Street and he was hooked. So much so that he made his own puppet – out of the lining of his father’s overcoat. Rather than getting a spanking, he got encouragement which I believe qualifies his parents for instant admission to heaven right there.

While most kids in his working class neighborhood were playing sports, Kevin was putting on puppet shows. His early shows caught the eye of a children’s show host in the Baltimore area and before long Kevin was performing on television.

After graduating high school, he went to New York City to work on the old Captain Kangaroo show as an onscreen actor and puppeteer but his heart still belonged to Jim Henson and the Muppets which were just starting to take off. Kevin had learned everything he knew from watching Sesame Street but he needed to know more.

For that he needed a mentor and he couldn’t have asked for a better one than Kermit Love. Love was one of Henson’s go-to guys in terms of building and designing Muppets and although the name recalls one of Henson’s other creations, Kermit the Frog was actually created by Henson years before he met Love.

Love encouraged the young African-American puppeteer and gave him good career advice throughout Clash’s career. With Love’s encouragement, Clash got to work as a puppeteer on a Sesame Street Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float which led him to getting a gig on Sesame Street itself.

It was there when a frustrated senior puppeteer threw a furry red Muppet at Clash and said “See what you can do with him” that Elmo was born. With the piping high voice and the insatiable need for hugs, Clash immediately saw that Elmo represented love. Children all over the world responded to Elmo, realizing that he needed them as much as they needed him.

This would take a toll on Clash’s marriage and home life. Although his relationship with his daughter seems to be pretty good, he expresses regret that he missed a lot of her childhood. Unfortunately, not a lot of that is explored to any extent in the documentary. In fact, we don’t even learn when or why his marriage ended (although given the time demands on Clash and his insistence that he do everything Elmo-related himself the reasons seem somewhat clear).

In fact it could be said that the documentary doesn’t really deal with anything negative at all. We get a sense that Kevin had a difficult time in establishing his career, but it’s mostly glossed over. We are told he got teased as a child but we don’t get to hear what he thought about it.

Clash is an intensely private and shy person who doesn’t really like talking about himself which is awfully ironic because he plays a character who certainly isn’t shy about expressing his feelings and actually teaches kids how to express theirs. We never hear about how or even whether his ethnic background was an issue in his career – one thinks not, but his is the only African-American face we see among the puppeteers in the movie with the exception being an aspiring puppeteer – a young girl from Atlanta whom is looking for mentoring from Kevin the same way Kevin looked to Kermit Love.

The stories are heartwarming at times – enough so I probably rated the film a little bit higher than I would have normally. We see Kevin’s reaction to a dying child wanting to meet Elmo, or Kevin’s reaction to the death of Jim Henson – but there is little flesh added to the story. We hear the how, the who, the when, the what but rarely the why. It took the filmmakers six years to film this and it’s disheartening that I know little more about Kevin Clash than I could have read in his online bio.

On the surface, Kevin is a great subject for a documentary but this isn’t a great documentary. I would have liked to get inside Kevin’s head and heart a little bit more, find out more of the process that brought Elmo from felt and foam into flesh. In that sense, this film could have learned from Henson himself; the characters should be more than just what you see on the surface. They are made real by what animates them. I would have liked to have discovered more about what animates Kevin Clash.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely heartwarming. A few tugs at the heartstrings.

REASONS TO STAY: The documentary structure asked some questions I wanted answers to late in the film and bounced back and forth in the linear timeline a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a drug reference and a couple of mild swear words but okay for most Sesame Street-aged kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: Should probably be seen at home, although if it is playing in a local art house it wouldn’t hurt to give it a bit of support.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill begins!

3 thoughts on “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

  1. Everyone keeps saying this is an amazing movie, but my biggest problem is that I just don’t care that much about Elmo haha.

    Nice review!

    • I get what you’re saying. Still, I think a really good documentary can capture your attention even if you aren’t that interested in the subject matter and that’s where I think the movie fails. Thanks for the comment!

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