Filmed in 2012 but proving timeless, Frank Oz’s loving and free-wheeling “Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched” is a must-see not only for Muppet fans and the people who made them, but for anyone seeking insight into the power of creativity.
Its title is nearly longer than its 65-minute runtime, but that’s a fine length for a doc that plays like a snappy conversation between pals. Oz assembled said “Muppet Guys” (Oz plus Muppet maestros Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, and Bill Barretta) for an unprecedented gabfest, all filmed and assembled into a satisfying inside look at the people behind (and sometimes under) the world’s most beloved puppets. In his introduction, Oz promises a look at “the spirit of The Muppets,” and “Muppet Guys Talking” delivers on that claim.
Loosely organized (really, just it’s five people sitting around talking, ostensibly guided by Oz), the documentary relies on the group’s obvious chemistry and shared experiences. Oz makes the film accessible even to Muppet novices, kicking off with an introduction to each player, complete with necessary notes on which Muppet each created and/or played during the run of “The Muppet Show.”
Each puppeteer provides insights into some of their most popular characters. Oz fondly remembers how he shaped Fozzie’s Bear’s plucky spirit, Goelz reveals an unlikely inspiration for his Gonzo, and Barretta offers a charming and funny origin story for his Pepe the King Prawn, and they all discuss how they took shape from early ideas, before transforming into fully realized characters. They’re quick to deflect common misconceptions about their work (many believe they just do voice work), but their passion for their profession is infectious.
Behind-the-scenes looks at the creation of their most ambitious gags (remember when Kermit sang in a swamp? ever think about where Jim Henson was during filming?) will prove to be catnip to both fans and wonkier types who like to know how stuff works. These insights could easily provide a film of their own.
Essential contributions come from Nelson, who created Muppets like Count von Count and Mr. Snuffleupagus, and Kermit’s nephew Robin. He passed away shortly after filming “Muppet Guys Talking,” and Nelson’s insights are often as essential and insightful as those from Oz. The Muppet family has never been far removed from tragedy and loss, and much of “Muppet Guys Talking” is dedicated to recognizing the work of other departed members of their team, included beloved creator Jim Henson as well as Richie Hunt, the man behind characters like Scooter and Janice.
That a film about The Muppets would refer so often to Henson’s work is a bit of a no brainer, but it also represents a larger point of “Muppet Guys Talking,” which is creativity is impossible without communication and collaboration. For the puppeteers who made The Muppets so popular, none of their success was feasible without the support and imagination of their fellow creators. Each participant is quick to deflect praise to someone else in the room, emphasizing the team efforts that made their wild dreams possible. Getting the band back together has never been so satisfying.
“Muppet Guys Talking” premiered in the Documentary section at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.