Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (Marks & Shane, 2011)

Elmo and Kevin Clash

Being Elmo is good.

It doesn’t matter, as one of my colleagues is fond of saying, how you want to parse that. 

Being Elmo the movie is a good movie. So too is it good. It advocates and promotes goodness. It is about a man, Kevin Clash, who benefited from the goodness of others and who tries to be good himself. It is about a character, Elmo, whose hook is that he loves everyone pretty much unconditionally and gets a lot of love in return.

Being Elmo the puppet–that is, being the person who performs as this character–is also apparently pretty good. Clash has created a life where he has managed to do quite well for himself by following his dreams, even when they didn’t make sense to a lot of people who thought he ought to be playing sports instead of making art.

We live in cynical times. As I write this there is a meme going around Facebook with a report from Fox News blasting the Muppets for being anti-capitalist and brainwashing kids against big oil. The notion that something could be beyond politics, above embedded ideological framing, and simply a manifestation of a core truth that could–and should–be celebrated on a human level is considered at best naive, at worst, stupidity worthy of condescension. One of the film’s many object lessons comes when it is discussed how Clash came to be Elmo. The pink Muppet was originally voiced by another puppeteer who tried to make him more like a caveman. Fed up that the character seemed stuck, he gave Elmo to Clash to see what he could do with it. Clash remembered Frank Oz (voice of Miss Piggy) telling him the key to creating a memorable Muppet was finding a simple but unique hook for what the character was. Clash watched a lot of children and came to realize that they embodied and responded to open, unguarded, and sincere love. Think that’s silly or simplistic? Ask yourself when was the last time that a dying kid made a wish that he or she wanted to meet Sean Hannity, Jon Stewart, Sarah Palin, or Nancy Pelosi.

Documentaries these days are awash in social problems: legal injustices, environmental calamities, tortured souls. Being Elmo is unapologetically feel good, even though (perhaps because) it has an ample share of life lessons. It’s fascinating and heartening to hear Clash recount a high school visit to Kermit Love’s studio where the artist shared secrets of the craft with what he recognized was a kindred spirit. It is amazing to see Love do the same for youngsters who have been inspired by his own creations. Whatever you receive, pass on to others…

For those who love documentaries about artists, the film is a real treat. It is not stingy with footage of the artists practicing their craft, whether it be Clash training French puppeters on the subtleties of manipulating the puppet or getting to watch him make a stitch in such a way as to hide the seam on the puppet’s face. Clash speaks of how Jim Henson both inspired and intimidated him and how both emotions pushed him to refine his craft and achieve what he did not know he was capable of doing. An early scene where Clash relates what happened when he made his first Muppet by cutting up a coat his father had because the material caught his eye is a precious object lesson for anyone who has to deal with young people who are a little bit different.

From a strictly filmic perspective, there are nits to pick. The writing and editing lacks confidence, is almost tentative at times. It’s as though directors Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein knew they had a slew of emotional payoff moments (and they do) but weren’t sure how to construct a frame narrative around them to maximize their impact. Is the core of the film about Clash making it out of Baltimore? About Jim Henson’s legacy? About Elmo’s relationship with kids and why he is so popular? About artists and their creative process? It is about all of these things, and a film can have this many themes and more, but the best ones must chose which theme is first among equals and subordinate the other parts of the narrative to it, if only slightly. Being Elmo flops around a bit, and while you are never far from an inspiring or meaningful moment, while that lack of ultimate direction doesn’t damage the film, it does tether it a little, keeping it at the “good” rather than “great” level.  To give just one example, the film gestures at the complications of fame as Clash mentions once–and once only–that he has an “ex wife.” He eventually limits his performing engagements after his daughter, now in high school and not a major part of the documentary to that point, says she wants him to spend more time with her. I would not have objected if that thread was cut, but if you are going to go there, flesh it out, tell that part of the story, don’t just imply things.

That is really an aesthetic, critical complaint, though. At the end of the day, Being Elmo was an effective reminder to me of the power of art in all its manifestations to transform lives, both those of the people who give it to us and those, like me, who have the privilege of receiving it. You don’t have to give Elmo a hug, really you don’t. If you are too cool, no one is going to force you. If Elmo and the unbridled, unconditional love that he represents and manifests is one of those childish things you needs must put away in order to feel more adult; if the cost of a ticket means you’ll have to give up going to one more Mission: Impossible film or wait a day to reimmerse yourself in the dark, dark world of girls with dragon tattoos and the monsters they hunt, well, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Mostly in life we get the art we deserve.

Occasionally, we get so much more.

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Update Dec 2012

A year later, Kevin Clash is in a different position, having left Sesame Street to deal with multiple accusations of having sex with underage boys. It seemed wrong to me to simply take this review down, but I also did not want to leave the further developments unacknowledged. For more information see:

The Wrap

National Post

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