the REVIEW: Being Elmo A Puppeteers story.

Directed by Constance Marks :  Narrated by  awesome Whoopi Goldberg

Guys. I think I have found love. Not with Elmo but with his puppeteer, Kevin Clash.

Being Elmo is an observational film, chronicling the life of the Muppet aficionado and his wonderful journey to becoming the heart and soul of one of the worlds best and most loved Muppet’s, Elmo. Whether you are a fan of the Muppet’s, Sesame Street or not it doesn’t matter, this is such a heartwarming and inspirational film told by an endearing subject. Jim Henson passed before I was alive any recollection came from seeing his name at the end of Sesame Street; surfing the net and realising he was responsible for college favorites Dark Crystal and Labyrinth; then you get to know about Frank Oz and his iconic creations. However you never really know too much, it’s like their Muppet alter egos are just as big, probably even bigger than the creators themselves. That is why this film is so much fun. {Spoilers after the jump}

When you see Kevin Clash, your first thought is – “He’s Elmo???” secondly … “Elmo’s black? ” then it’s “That black guy is Elmo!…”

It’s what came up in my head, and as Kevin recited Muppet colleague Richard Hunt during the film, Jim Henson didn’t have any black puppeteer. I don’t know what I used to envisage maneuvering the red rascal but I think the image of Henson and Oz is exactly what I’d always thought of – if I’d even thought about it at all. What’s lovely about Clash is his humble upbringing and the story of his pure obsession with the Muppet’s show and everything Henson. Having experimented with his own Muppet making skills his parents become quickly convinced of his ambitions and talent, their unending support sets the pace and theme for the whole film. They recollect all of their sons’ endeavors growing up in Baltimore from building him a workshop – allowing him to perform to young neighbors in the garden – to arguments over the importance of  his Muppet’s over his sister’s Barbie’s and the unwanted attention he got from being young black boy ‘playing with dolls’  to becoming a local celebrity still in school after scoring work on the Baltimore local kids TV show.

We journey to New York where he meets Kermit Love, puppet builder who had built many of Henson’s large-scale Muppet’s, and Kevin’s mentor.  It’s a series of wonderful archive footage of the very moments Clash talks about. This meet sets the course for more luck as Clash starts to get more work for his puppetry through the praises of those he’d worked with. Clash reels off the shows, many of which were his childhood favorites, he was lucky enough to work on before the dream filled meeting and finally working with his hero Jim Henson. It’s a special moment we can tell; he retells it so vividly that you find yourself holding your breath as he replays the moment he pumps himself up to meet Henson.

Then Elmo comes along. In a scenario of right place/right time he is given the chance to bring the little red rascal to life, his way, and Elmo-gate begins. I know Elmo is popular – he’s a celebrity and been around since forever in my eyes.  SO I can only imagine how that kind of recognition and fan-dom can effect the person behind it. Clash speaks candidly about the experience, riding the celebrity wave that perhaps only Henson and Oz had experienced prior.  Elmo was huge. Cut to some appearances from talk show hosts and well-known actresses : there were Oprah interviews, red carpets and even an Elmo toy that had people lining up and down the streets.

He later discusses the birth of his daughter Shannon whom he fondly calls his new creation. At this point you wonder how he even had time to get married until he humorously recalls trying to puppeteer her;  it becomes clear just how immersed in his craft that this guy is. His involvement in the ‘Make a Wish Foundation’ is a big part of why he does what he does, but Clash explains, it also meant feeling guilty for spending more time with children who were not his Shannon. Not delving too much in to the back-story of his ‘other’ life – we know Mr Clash is divorced. A price he paid perhaps due to the now meteoric rise to fame Elmo brought to his life – well this is what the film and the subject alludes to. We hear from talking heads that Kevin was unwilling to share the responsibilities of being Elmo’s puppeteer – perhaps like Henson was known to be, Kevin was becoming fiercely critical over what he had started, a perfectionist and therefore would only do the job himself. Something so wonderful, seemingly simple in the ethos of spreading love clearly means spreading yourself thin to make sure there is enough to go around. That is what is apparent from Clash’s back-story and it is fascinating if not a little sad.

There is a tear jerking scene when the death of Henson inevitably factors in to the story. We see a clip of the Muppet cast and their handlers on stage performing a farewell tribute on stage, a last testament and will from the Henson himself. Truly this is so sad, because its being told from the perspective of a man who we now know had dreamed all his life to meet and work with his hero and ultimately realised his dream. As the film goes on Kevin speaks of his daughter again and her plea to be given sufficient time to spend with her father before leaving for college. It’s a revelation that breaks his heart, but he vows to put in the time.

One of the best clips in the film is during his daughters 16th birthday. Clash has managed to bring in his/Elmo’s big movie star friends Jack Black, LL Cool.J and of course, Elmo to record birthday messages. The party guests scream as each head appears on-screen. Clash steals approval seeking glances at his daughter; the camera zooms, Clash is crying.  Having created puppets since the age of 10 he points out that nothing is as amazing as creating a human being – he attributes his reasons for becoming a puppeteer to his love for observing the human spirit.  In love with him yet? you should be or you have no soul.

The film comes up full circle when a young budding puppeteer is invited by Clash to come to the Muppet studio to meet him. It’s beautiful, it’s exactly the dream he had realised over 30 years prior when he was offered the same opportunity to meet with Kermit Love, only now Clash stands as the Sesame Street Muppet Captain (so frigging cool). How heartwarming it was to see Clash keeping that dream alive by affording it to prospective successors, a young black child impressively clued up when he’s asked to name all the old Muppet handlers and clearly as in awe of the whole thing as Clash was.

One thing you come away understanding, (Caroll Spinney makes a nice appearance now to give his two cents – eeek and he’s wearing half his Big Bird costume, I may die!) is that Elmo is Clash; Clash exemplifies everything Henson stood for and that the company still stands for: the quest to embody all the qualities that is good, love and togetherness. Clash extends this appreciation to young fans and thrillingly he’s determined to keep the spirit of the Henson ‘torch’ burning.  It’s all too much at this point that the tears have dried up and I’m left with a lump in my throat and love in my heart. From the music to the fantastic vignettes of archive footage that complements every single scene, this is beautifully documented and smoothly edited – a pleasure to watch and surprisingly  fascinating. How do I get to Sesame Street?!


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