Being Elmo – A review

I love all things Jim Henson. The man was brilliant. I was lucky enough to catch the traveling exhibit Jim Henson’s Fantastic World while I was in Seattle. The exhibit documented his creative process through the years, including some of his early sketches and experimental short films. I am very glad I stumbled upon it and it was one of the highlights of my trip.

My indoctrination to the work of Jim Henson started the way I assume it starts for most people – with Sesame Street. My earliest TV memories are of Sesame Street (and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson – don’t ask). With the help of Big Bird, the Count, Grover and the Grouch (my personal favorite), I learned important lessons about sharing and friendship as well as how to read and numbers. It of course was also my introduction to the Muppets, who I would eventually follow on The Muppet Show and the subsequent Muppet movies once I was too old to be watching Sesame Street. However, despite my love of all things Muppet-y, I never really gave much thought to the men and women behind my favorite characters. I knew the Muppets weren’t real, of course; I was a pretty savvy kid. But I never really stopped to consider the work that goes into bringing these pieces of fleece to life. The documentary Being Elmo provides a glimpse behind the curtain to see how the magic is made.

Fact: Elmo is annoying. I don’t think that there are many adults that would argue otherwise. I don’t have children, but the thought of being subjected to Elmo on a regular basis makes my head hurt. Forcing teenagers to sit through a combination of Elmo and Barney on a constant loop might be the most effective birth control there is. But don’t let that deter you from checking out this documentary. Though Elmo is in the title, this is really the story of the man who gives the little red monster his voice, Kevin Clash.

Clash grew up in Baltimore with a love for puppets and puppetry. He began making his own puppets at a young age and started putting on shows for the children in his mother’s day care center. As he got older, he began doing shows around the Baltimore area where he was discovered by a local television host and put on air. He eventually was mentored by renowned puppet maker Kermit Love and ultimately found a home working at Jim Henson’s Workshop. Though he has been a puppeteer for various other Muppets, his greatest success came when he took over primarily puppeteering of Elmo.

Despite my dislike of the finished Elmo product, there is no doubt that Clash is a very skilled performer. I never thought puppetry was easy, but to see all the nuances and thought that goes into creating beloved characters was really eye opening. Watching Clash help train the performers of the French version of Sesame Street showed how subtle changes make a huge difference. It was also amusing to see footage of Elmo before Clash took the reins; early incarnations of the Muppet were very different from the Elmo that we know and loathe today. Clash’s love for children is evident and he takes his responsibility as “the voice of Elmo” seriously. It was especially touching to watch him interact with a Make a Wish child and her family.

Being Elmo shines a light on some of the unsung heroes of children’s entertainment. Though Kevin Clash’s journey is the focus, you get a sense of the clear community that this vocation has created. By the end of it I had even slightly softened my stance on Elmo. A sweet documentary that I definitely recommend.

Being Elmo is available on DVD starting April 3rd and is currently streaming on Netflix instant video. PBS will show the documentary as part of their Independent Lens series starting on April 5 (check your local listings for date and time).


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