Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

The new documentary, “Being Elmo” will bring viewers face-to-face with the magic of childhood, the  fascination with a crucial phenomenon.  The movie pulls aside the curtain to explore the emotional investment that performers, exemplified by Elmo-worker Kevin Clash, make in their chosen profession.

“Being Elmo” is a straight, uncomplicated picture that relies on some basic assumptions. First, there’s the fact that Elmo, the furry red Muppet from “Sesame Street,” films, and toy store fame, is among the most well-known and beloved fictional personalities in the world today. If there’s any doubt that Elmo is huge, consider the fact that he’s the only non-human ever to testify before the United States Congress. Elmo is huge.

There is irony in that Elmo’s puppeteer is, at first glance, the very opposite of the childish, high-pitched personality he creates for TV. Kevin Clash, who has been performing as Elmo since the mid-1980s, is a middle-aged black man with a metered voice and humble off-screen disposition.

The film centers on Clash and follows his life story, from an ambitious Baltimore youth to an insider at Jim Henson’s puppet empire. The lessons posed by his rise from humble origins and dedication to his dream, even in the face of all the ridicule one might expect a teenager with a talent for animating colorful puppets to endure, are good ones, if hardly unique.

The puppeteer’s journey begins when Clash, fresh off watching an episode of “Captain Kangaroo,” cuts up his father’s trench coat to construct a crude monkey character. By the time he finishes high school, Clash has a menagerie of more than 70 homemade puppets and a job performing for a kids’ show on local TV.

It’s not an especially contentions journey. Once Clash comes to the attention of Jim Henson, he has access to advice and mentoring from some of the best puppeteers in the world. His obstacles are mostly the things everyone deals with: attempting to raise a family while balancing the demands of a career, weighing risky job opportunities against the instinct for self-preservation, and overcoming feelings of unworthiness and awe to emerge as a leader.

Unlike most people, Kevin Clash makes that transition from newcomer to leader in what “Being Elmo” describes as a legendary moment, picking up the discarded puppet and instantly finding a voice for it that resonates with children and catapults Elmo to the top of the Muppet world.

Even though the movie describes such grandiose scenarios, it also shows the hard work and frustrations that go into mastering a complex craft. In archival footage we watch Clash trying out voices for a new puppet, rejecting each one until the pauses between attempts become uncomfortably long. We also see him working to make time for his 16-year old daughter, one of the few young people he can’t figure out how to engage with.

Just as puppeteering begins to look too easy, Clash travels to Europe to work with the cast of the French “Sesame Street.” Despite their skills, the French puppeteers struggle to convey the same subtle emotions and humor that Clash gives Elmo. Through his brief teachings it becomes obvious that his apprenticeship has lasted a lifetime and there is thoughtful intentionality behind everything he does.

The ease with which Clash animates Elmo is the same, whether he’s playing to a grown-up audience on a talk show or offering hugs to a terminally ill child. This is where “Being Elmo” states its case for the significance of its subject. Even without being impressed by the professionalism and creativity of the puppeteers depicted in the movie, it will be hard not to acknowledge the effectiveness of a few touching moments.

Elmo is the top choice for Make-a-Wish kids with life-threatening illnesses. The very fact that they want to spend time embracing Clash’s right arm more than they want to do anything else is evidence of the power of performance.

Clash comes upon the higher aspect of his calling by accident, but once he does, he responds the way we’d all like to. Crouching humbly below a plywood set or behind a video monitor, he lets Elmo do the talking and accept the praise that is deservedly his. This, of course, is part of the life of a puppeteer. But it’s as much a part of the journey, and a destination in its own right, as everything else that comes with educating and entertaining on television.

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg

Featuring Kevin Clash, Bill Barretta, Fran Brill, Joan Ganz Cooney, Cheryl Henson, Rosie O’Donnell, Frank Oz, Caroll Spinney and Martin P. Robinson

Constance Marks Productions

Distributed by Submarine Entertainment

Directed by Constance Marks

Written by Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein

Producers, Corrine LaPook, Constance Marks and James Miller

Original Music, Joel Goodman

Cinematography, James Miller

Editors, Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein

By Michael T. Dennis