Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 15, 2011

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Grade: B  

I hate that little red fucker.  

You probably do, too. He clogged up the great multi-cultural semi-ghetto of Sesame Street with all his Tickle-Me dolls, dethroning Big Bird as the king shit of the stoop. It’s just natural to resent someone who usurps your childhood hero.  

Elmo is annoying. He’s a cloying little crybaby who seems to only live for hugs, and the kids love him. (My 3-year-old nephew just graduated from his obligatory Elmo phase, but I gotta pause here and mention that the Elmo Potty Training DVD might be the trippiest thing I have ever seen.)  

Whatever the case, director Constance Marks’ portrait of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash is improbably, insanely moving. It is a movie without conflict, showing Clash’s early days in a bad part of Baltimore, where the kid spent nights sewing felt muppets at home, much to the laugher of his schoolmates. Local television soon came calling, and Clash was working on stuff like The Great Space Coaster before he even graduated high school.  

Kevin Clash is not a natural camera subject. Reticent and withdrawn, he only seems to be comfortable when there is a puppet in his hand. We see Elmo’s origins as a raspy-voiced wisenheimer, kicked to Sesame Street’s curb when nobody could figure out what do to with him. Credit Clash for reconfiguring the little guy as a beaming beacon of unconditional love.  

What emerges from Being Elmo isn’t straight hagiography—but the film simply has no time for bad feelings. Promising newcomer Clash is welcomed into this community of puppeteers, and the movie itself seems to be one good deed after another. There’s some startling TV footage of Clash being mentored by a certain frog’s namesake, Kermit Love, and he finally starts working with Jim Henson himself, just before the latter’s untimely death.  

It’s undeniably moving, watching an artistic community reach out and pull up a talented youngster. Being Elmo is a breezy portrait, full of positive feelings. Clash does his best to give whatever he can back to the community, and the pictures’ most moving scenes find him mentoring a similarly gifted kid from a bad neighborhood. “Looking forward to working with you soon,” he writes.  

Sometimes sweetness is enough.

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