Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 04 May 2011
Source 35mm print
Categories The 2011 Independent Film Festival Boston
Fresh from a Special Jury Prize win at Sundance, director Constance Marks’ new documentary Being Elmo struck a celebratory note as IFFB’s opening night film. A profile of puppeteer Kevin Clash, whose performance as the ubiquitous red Sesame Street Muppet has made Elmo – if not Clash himself – a household name, Being Elmo is a lovingly-assembled and engaging film that perhaps can’t help but take on the warm-and-fuzzy vibe of its titular cuddly character. I won’t say that the film will melt the heart of even the most dyed-in-the-wool cynic because to do so would be cliché. I also frankly can’t lay claim to being a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, so I wouldn’t know what melts such a person’s heart. But I will say this: the film understands and captures Elmo’s expansive appeal, as well as his puppeteer’s genuinely inspiring life story, and it does so in a way that’s both revealing and uplifting.
Clash grew up in Baltimore with a loving family but little money. His father worked in a factory, and Clash sought escape from the gritty reality of city life through television shows like The Wonderful World of Disney and Captain Kangaroo. He became fascinated with Sesame Street when it premiered, not just because the show’s diverse urban neighborhood reminded him of his own, but because he loved Jim Henson’s Muppets. One of the film’s best anecdotes revolves around Clash’s first attempt to make a Muppet-style puppet of his own: out of the lining from his father’s trench coat. The film traces Clash’s rise from putting on puppet shows for the children in his neighborhood to landing a local television gig to earning the chance to work with his childhood idols on Sesame Street. The joys of the story lie largely in the details, such as Clash recalling when he first met the improbably named Muppeteer Kermit Love and learned how to use the elusive, seam-hiding “Henson stitch” when making his puppets; or a scene of Clash advising a fellow puppeteer on how to make her cloth character “smile.” One of my favorite images in the film comes from a visit to the Henson workshop, when Clash opens a drawer full of Muppet eyes in all shapes and sizes.
It’s to Marks’ credit that while Being Elmo is unabashedly affectionate about its subject, and it is certainly not some kind of Sesame Street expose, it does offer a degree of dimension in its characterization of Clash. For example, Clash’s perfectionism when it comes to puppeteering, and his seriousness as a director and teacher, is evident in numerous scenes, making it clear that Elmo’s carefree, loving character represents only one side of a fiercely dedicated artist. A small portion of the film also focuses on the personal sacrifices that Clash has made in order to meet the world’s growing demand for Elmo. He speaks with some regret about missing his daughter Shannon’s first day of school, and seeing her less than he would like to when the Elmo juggernaut has been in particularly high gear (such as during the precipitous rise of the “Tickle Me Elmo” toy in the late 1990s). This is a feel-good documentary but not a saccharine one, and that seems just about right.
Being Elmo’s positive vibes carried into the Q&A that followed the screening, where Clash – and Elmo – received a hearty standing ovation. Elmo’s first order of business was to quickly greet the kids in attendance (out of the reasonable concern that they would be bored by typical film fest questions about finance and distribution), but it’s worth noting that the grown ups got a bit childlike in the little red guy’s presence. One requested a hug; another confessed to being afraid of the dark. No one was embarrassed. In the documentary, Clash says that he always wanted Elmo to represent love, and the screening and Q&A suggested that he has succeeded in his aim. Something about this character makes people feel loved and secure, and that’s a remarkable feat to which Marks’ film pays entertaining tribute.
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