“When I grow up, I want to be a puppeteer!”
That honestly was my very first thought coming out of Constance Marks and Philip Shane’s documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, which won the Best Documentary Prize at Sundance earlier this year. Examining the life of Elmo mastermind Kevin Clash – the voice and soul behind arguably the most beloved Muppet ever to stroll along Sesame Street – the movie is a genuine rarity of nonfiction filmmaking. The film cheerfully whistles along with nary an ounce of cynicism, instead committing itself to the narrative of a man who actually managed to realize his childhood dream. For those of us who soured on our own dreams long ago, this documentary may register as hagiographic or even simplistic if scrutinized enough afterward, but such embittered feelings are nowhere to be found while actually watching the movie.
Being Elmo starts with the 51-year-old Kevin revisiting the old Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up, prompting him to reflect on his childhood. Growing up on a healthy diet of Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street, Kevin’s love for puppetry began at an early age. He obsessively scrutinized the craft of the puppetry on his favorite programs and he made it a point to catch every single behind-the-scenes special featuring his idol Jim Henson. Eventually, young Kevin began tailoring his own hand-made puppets, once even using the fabric from his parents’ own clothing before getting them to support his passion financially. Kevin got his professional start working for a program on his neighborhood’s CBS affiliate, subsequently found a mentor in Muppet Designer Kermit Love, and finally got his big break snagging a role on Captain Kangaroo. When Kangaroo went off the air, he was invited to work with Henson on numerous projects, eventually leading to his participation as Elmo on Sesame Street. Kevin has been a mainstay on the show ever since.
If you walk in to Being Elmo with the expectation that it will be a behind-the-scenes look into Jim Henson’s studios today, and if you are looking for a particularly deep character study on the driving force behind a children’s icon, the film is bound to disappoint. Marks and Shane are principally dedicated to framing a relatable narrative of a young dreamer who, through sheer gumption and through the remarkable support of family and mentors, actually manages to sate his ambitions. The Kevin Clash of this documentary is the American Dream personified, and with that sentiment in mind, there is little reason to wonder why a film of such unmitigated joy managed to pierce the hearts jaded audiences on the festival circuit. Admittedly, it is hard to think of a single emotional beat in the film where I failed to crack even the faintest grin.
Unfortunately, that same unmitigated joy also serves to cover up the most unfortunate shortcoming in Being Elmo’s narrative: the lack of true conflict. While watching the movie, I was indeed moved by the improbable generosity from Kevin’s parents, from his employers, and from the Kermit Loves of the world who evangelized his undeniable talents. It generally doesn’t require tremendous reflection to understand that success is typically earned through personal sacrifice and compromise. Marks and Shane hint at such compromise here, yet they seem reluctant to delve any more deeply into any perceived cost for Kevin’s success – for himself or for any of his acquaintances.
We are briefly informed, for example, that Kevin was teased in high school for his interest in puppetry and that Kevin’s sisters felt their parents gave his interests preferential treatment. Neither Kevin nor his parents – each of whom were interviewed for this documentary – were grilled particularly hard on these matters. Additionally, Kevin alludes to his failed marriage and a strained relationship with his only daughter Shannon. Apart from presenting home movie footage in which Kevin invasively documents Shannon’s birth, and apart from an emotional and cathartic celebration of her sweet sixteen, almost no insight into Kevin’s relationship with the family he attempted to raise alongside his blossoming career is given. The filmmakers’ choice to avoid such complexity this blatantly is an unfortunate one; their documentary feels somewhat incomplete as a result.
But perhaps I am assigning expectations of cynicism to a story that doesn’t actually warrant it; this is a film about a Muppeteer, after all. The narrative of Being Elmo, despite its lack of complexity, is hardly a shallow exploration of the American Dream. If I learned anything from the documentary, it’s that fulfilling a dream requires far more than moxie and a strong set of bootstraps by which to pull yourself up. Kevin clash is one of the lucky ones. Supremely talented and blessed with family and friends who unfailingly supported his aspirations, I doubt Kevin – an African American kid growing up in the sixties and seventies – would have managed to transcend his humble Boston roots without their altruism. So few of us actually could have.
Being Elmo begins as a character study (albeit an incomplete one) and ultimately concludes as a statement on the value of community. Perhaps, even more than the old “trust in yourself and you can achieve anything” adage, this is a lesson future generations deserve to know. If you are a parent, and you have yet to share a work of nonfiction filmmaking with your children, the story of Kevin “the talent behind Elmo” Clash is a terrific place to start.
Bottom Line: With Muppet Fever running rampant this fall, the delightful Being Elmo is yet another film worthy of your time.