Suddenly, it’s a good time to be a Muppet again. After a few decades of sub-par films, co-writers (and massive Muppet fans) Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller appear to be bringing some of the magic back with “The Muppets,” their attempt to revive creator Jim Henson‘s beloved characters for a new generation of kids. The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens has assembled a massive exhibit to the fuzzy creatures and their creator called “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” which includes drawings, storyboards, props, and a puppet making workshop as well as screenings of the films. “Sesame Street” has been plugging along steadily on PBS since it’s debut in 1969 but some recent high profile guest stars like Katy Perry have really put the show back into the public consciousness. And now we have director Constance Marks and her feel-good documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey” about Kevin Clash, the man who brought Elmo to life.
Kevin grew up in a lower middle-class family in Baltimore in the 1960s and was 9 years old when “Sesame Street” first premiered. Like many children he was completely transfixed, but unlike most children he began studying the show to figure out how the characters were both made and manipulated. He began crafting his own puppets using household materials, even cutting the fur lining out of one of his fathers coats without permission. But instead of punishing Kevin, his parents said he only need to ask in the future and encouraged his creativity which propelled him to craft countless dolls, each with their own personality and voice supplied by Kevin. He was teased by his classmates for playing with dolls until it was clear his talent and determination would eventually pay off. As a teen, he made his way to a local public-access station performing these characters while continuing to study both “Sesame Street” and the adult oriented prime-time “The Muppet Show” both by his idol, Jim Henson.
The spine of the documentary focuses on the rise of Kevin’s career from public access to “Captain Kangaroo” to meeting and eventually working alongside his heroes Henson and Frank Oz (the man behind Miss Piggy, Bert and Yoda among others). The scenes with Henson (through archival photos and occasional behind-the-scenes footage) are electric. As Kevin recounts meeting Henson’s master puppet builder Kermit Love and being introduced to Henson you’re likely to get a charge too as he speaks about them in almost hushed reverent tones. As Kevin begins to work on “Sesame Street” he tries his hand at a number of characters until finally finding his voice as Elmo, a little red puppet that had previously been discarded by several other puppeteers after not knowing quite what to do with him. Having previously been performed as a gruff Oscar The Grouch type, Kevin turned Elmo into a vehicle for his own positive personality. The character became a huge hit with kids, spawning his own segment on the show as well as a feature film and brief toy craze in the mid-90s.
For 25 years Kevin has been personally puppeting Elmo but now as an executive producer on the show his responsibilities include a lot more than just showing up and speaking in the third person. He oversees many aspects of production including training other puppeteers and ensuring that the versions of the show shot around the world all meet the standard set by Henson. And whenever Elmo has an appearance, no matter where it is around the world, it’s Kevin puppeting him. Whether it’s a talk show appearance or visit to a children’s hospital, he just can’t bear to let someone else takeover the character even if it’s just for the buffet crowd on a cruise ship. But this kind of dedication comes at the expense of his own family.
A curious moment comes midway through when Kevin mentions his ex-wife for the first time when the film had never explained previously that Kevin had even gotten married in the first place. You get the sense that a decision was definitely made to focus on Kevin’s career and after he becomes an adult, leaves his home life mostly behind in the narrative, which is a shame. One of the more emotional moments in the film is when Kevin admits that he probably should have spent a little more time at home raising his own daughter. At her Sweet 16 birthday party, he presents her with a celebrity studded video of birthday wishes from Jack Black and LL Cool J which is both a nice gesture and a bit sad because he misses the irony there. But other than these brief moments the film focuses mainly on Kevin’s career and how his spirit and personality have touched so many people through his work.
At a breezy 76 minutes, the film is extremely economical: both entertaining and emotional. It’s been charming festival crowds since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year and took home a Special Jury Prize. Even if Elmo was a little after your time, the doc is sure to wring a few tears out of nostalgia prone adults with its behind-the-scenes look at a show that everybody under 50 has grown up with. The only real disappointment is wondering why Jim Henson hasn’t gotten a doc of his own this good. [B]