Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey


Kevin Clash, Jim Henson (archive footage), Frank Oz, Bill Barretta, Carroll Spinney, Fran Brill, Martin P. Robinson; Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg
SCR: Philip Shane, Justin Weinstein
DIR: Constance Marks
1 hour 20 mins

I’ve always been a fan of the Muppets, but never really saw much in Elmo. The red “baby” muppet always seems like an attempt to reach a younger demographic, and becoming a cyclical adult exposed to the vitriol reserved for such cuteness certainly never helped.

So, let me just say that if you have the same reaction to Elmo regarding this documentary, cast all that stuff aside. Being Elmo tells the story of Kevin Clash, the voice and soul of Sesame Street’s most profitable creation, but the little red guy is only a small part of this story. Instead, it’s the lifelong tale of a young man so inspired by the magic of Jim Henson’s creations, he’d rip apart clothes and design his own puppets.

One day, he makes a call to Henson’s puppetry guru (named Kermit!) and is stunned to not only receive a call back, but an invitation to visit the man’s shop. Clash’s love of puppetry is cemented and he lands gigs on both a local children’s program and a Saturday morning sci-fi comedy.

Then one day, Henson calls, but not for the reason you’d expect.

Clash’s journey doesn’t have a lot of inherent drama – there are a few dips, and the eventual death of Jim Henson – but for the most part, this is a delightful and inspiring story of a man called to do a particular thing. His dedication and creative life force is not without its fallout: we get suggestions on the toll a creative life can have on a family, but the movie isn’t interested in rolling around in the mud.

But I cannot imagine any person ever called to creativity not being able to relate to some aspect of this film. I was surprised at how forthcoming it was in allowing a peek behind the curtain at the puppeteers and the hallowed process of bringing the Muppets to life.

I’m sure Clash would agree that seeing the trickery only makes the end result more magical.

It doesn’t hurt that Clash – now the most important member of the Sesame Street creative team since Henson himself – is also a pretty sweet guy. Granted, I’ll never be able to see Elmo again without imagining Kevin Clash working the puppet, but maybe that’s a good thing.

It makes Elmo a lot more bearable. (Submarine Deluxe)

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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