As the simplest member of the "Sesame Street" legacy, Elmo also has the greatest lasting appeal. His childlike naivete and untroubled worldview catapulted the furry red muppet to instant fame in the 1980s, when upstart puppeteer Kevin Clash gave the character his defining traits. The subject of "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," Clash grew up in Baltimore's lower class African American community during the 1970s, where he rapidly advanced his career from a young age. Combining Clash's testimony with archival footage and reminiscences from various acquaintances, director Constance Marks assembles an admirably sweet-natured portrait.
[Editor's Note: This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival where "Being Elmo" world premiered. It comes out in limited release this Friday, October 21.]
Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, "Being Elmo" follows Clash from his unrealized boyhood dreams of visiting Disneyland to his eventual acceptance into the Jim Henson family of puppeteers, where he fleshed out the Elmo persona and virtually created an icon overnight. Now one of the primary creative forces behind "Sesame Street," Clash is seen in his element behind the scenes, fleshing out the details of puppet choreography and training new puppeteers. Marks moves between Clash's rise to prominence and general analysis of Elmo's continuing popularity. "Kids need him," Goldberg says, but it's readily obvious that Clash needs him as well.
A "Sesame Street" nut since his youth ("It was a lot like my neighborhood," he says of the show's groundbreaking diversity), Clash was cutting his dad's trench coat to make puppets before any other opportunities came his way. Eventually, he formed a bond with Henson stalwart Kermit Love, whose early mentoring sessions with Clash appear in amazingly detailed archival material. Love brought him to Henson's attention, and Clash's "Sesame Street" audition tape (featuring muppet rejects auditioning for Captain Kangaroo) provides an amusing look at the puppeteer on the brink of realizing his dream. These early moments of professional growth lead into the more advanced stages of Clash's career, including his production work on Henson's "Labyrinth" and his reflections on the runaway appeal of Elmo, in addition to memories of the initial "Tickle Me Elmo" craze.
Despite its predictably cheery vibe, "Being Elmo" implies a certain darkness lingering beneath the surface of Clash's life. "Sesame Street" consumes his world and distracts him from his family, straining his relationship with his wife and daughter. If anything, the movie could have delved deeper into this dimension of Clash's life and deepened the movie's appeal. Instead, Marks glosses over the conflicts between Clash's private and public lives, highlighting the positives of his success over the more complicated effects on his life.
Nevertheless, the subject says enough about his vocation to make "Being Elmo" ready-made for additional levels of interpretation. "We're trying to create a human," he says of puppeteering, but then contradicts himself when discussing his daughter's birth: "There's nothing like creating a human being," he observes, confessing that he treated his newborn like a puppet herself. At the heart of Clash's vision is a conflict between living life to the fullest and trying to control it with one hand, ample felt, and a pair of plastic eyes.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? After receiving much love from audiences at Sundance, "Being Elmo" will open via Submarine Deluxe beginning October 21 in New York.
criticWIRE grade: B+