I don’t see a lot of wonderful movies for this site. I see some good ones, certainly, and I would recommend a lot of the things I see to my peers, but when I sit down to write a review and actually think about the score, nothing really shines. A lot of movies are entertaining enough, but they rarely give such a deep feeling of satisfaction that you can’t stop thinking about it. It’s hard to find a film that’s so absolutely astonishing that you just love everything about it. I figured I just wouldn’t be able to find a film like that.
Luckily, I got to see Being Elmo.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Director: Constance Marks, Philip Shane
Being Elmo follows the life of Kevin Clash, one of the major forces behind Sesame Street and Elmo’s sole puppeteer. Starting as a kid in Baltimore who just really liked TV and puppets, Clash began to make his own puppets at age 10, and spent his teen years entertaining neighborhood children in person and on local cable. With a lot of hard work and help from Muppet designer Kermit Love, Clash was able to follow his dream of working with Muppets and with the legendary Jim Henson.
This documentary is simply incredible. I’ll get into the technicalities in a bit, but Being Elmo is probably the most uplifting movie I’ve ever seen. Everything from the interviews to the upbeat score just added to the massive smile on my face. It’s hard not to feel inspired with all the things Kevin Clash has accomplished in his life, but the subject matter and the way it’s presented just fill the viewer with this intense feeling of determination. I want to make Muppets right now.
Seeing someone living their dream always brings up a bit of jealousy, but it’s clear that Clash has worked himself to the bone to get as far as he has. Not only does Clash do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work on Sesame Street, but he is also Elmo’s only puppeteer. Foreign-language Elmos have different performers, but every English-speaking Elmo is the work of Kevin Clash. Every single one. Can you imagine doing your day job and then flying around the world to perform as one of the most-loved children’s characters ever? That is some serious dedication.
The best thing about Clash is that he seems like such a likeable guy despite his massive achievements. I’m always a skeptical when celebrities entertain sick children, since it usually seems like a ploy for media attention more than genuine concern, but Clash has been entertaining kids for free since he was a kid himself. The man spent his free time in high school putting on puppet shows for terminally ill children. You know, just to make them smile. He still visits sick children despite his exceedingly busy schedule, and when the visits are filmed, he’s never the one on camera: just Elmo.
Elmo would not be nearly as magical if it weren’t for Clash. The furry red monster was originally in the hands of another puppeteer, and when he couldn’t figure out how to make the character work, he pushed it off on the new kid. Clash is a fantastic puppeteer, with an almost magical way of bringing his characters to life, but that isn’t what makes Elmo so appealing to kids. Clash puts himself into Elmo, and it’s clear how much he loves his work when you see him in action.
Kevin Clash’s enthusiasm is not the only thing that makes him such a perfect subject for a documentary. The advantage of working in film and TV is that Clash’s life has been very well-documented, and there are plenty of pictures and video available from his early years. I only noticed one instance of reused footage. The editing is fantastic. It is well-paced and never lingers too long on one subject, something that is pretty important in a documentary, but never feels jumbled or confusing. Clash’s life is laid out in a mostly linear fashion, but there is enough variation that it never feels like we’re just being led from point A to point B.
When a person really focuses on their career, it’s bound to have consequences on their family life. A lot of documentaries linger on the damages caused by ambition to garner sympathy for the subject, especially if the subject has done some somewhat questionable things in the name of his or her career. Luckily, Kevin Clash is a pretty awesome guy, and even though his personal life has been greatly affected by his dedication to his work, Being Elmo doesn’t linger on that fact. Clash does talk about missing a good portion of his daughter’s childhood, and his ex-wife is mentioned in passing, but these facts are presented as pieces of a whole person, not something to play up for sympathy.
Overall, Being Elmo is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. The subject is fantastic, the interviews are fantastic, and it’s full of puppets and the people who love them. It’s getting a limited release across the US starting in early November, and if it comes anywhere near you, you should give it a look. What’s not awesome about puppets?