Full disclosure: Elmo is part of my world; that high-pitched laughter ringing through my house on a regular basis as we read about Elmo’s adventures with a camera, the potty, a visit to the doctor’s office (these are not mere books but battery-operated, sound-emitting extravaganzas).
But until the emergence of the documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, I knew nothing about the puppeteer behind the furry red phenom. Suddenly, I was intrigued. At the dinner table, I asked around: what do you think the puppeteer who operates Elmo is like? From my 9-year-old stepdaughter, a one-word answer: “Weird.”
Kevin Clash, in fact, does not appear to be weird at all. In the film, he’s portrayed as a mild-mannered, kind, giving, supremely talented soul, with a deep love for the puppet he animates and the children who love him.
Clash, who is in his early 50s, grew up in a part of Baltimore that some at the time referred to as Chocolate City. His dad worked at a factory on the other side of the toxic water; his mother ran a daycare out of their home. Young Kevin began making puppets early, in one case out of the lining of his father’s trench coat. Dad’s reaction? “Next time, just ask.” These were supportive parents.
Kevin was teased at school – a boy who played with dolls, the kids said. But he pressed on with his calling. He performed for his mother’s daycare kids, around town, and eventually got a gig on a kids’ show at a local TV station. He became a disciple of Kermit Love, who designed and built many of Sesame Street’s best-known Muppets. One thing led to another, and Clash became a regular on Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster, and finally got a call from Jim Henson, the legendary creator of the Muppets. Ultimately, Clash found himself on the hallowed Street.
It took Clash a while to find his feet; his early characters didn’t exactly take off. But when a fellow puppeteer gave up on Elmo in frustration, Clash picked up the puppet and thrust his arm into pop culture history, turning the red, gruff-sounding caveman character into a high-pitched, child-like fuzzball of love.
A pre-Clash Elmo scene is among the amazing archival footage in this documentary, along with rarely seen behind-the-scenes footage, home movies, Clash auditions, and an early (perhaps the first) appearance of Clash’s Elmo.
The film is narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, who also shows up as an interviewee, and in a Sesame Street clip, which frankly feels odd. Worse: the script she has to work with is often lacklustre. Even if this documentary is meant to be kid-friendly, the voice-over – all the material – can still be colourful and interesting. Didn’t Sesame Street teach us that?
But the most significant problem here is that beyond tracking his career, the film doesn’t tell us much about Clash himself. What drew him to puppets in the first place? What did it feel like to be bullied early on? His adult life is also glossed over: There was a marriage, a child, a divorce. But there is little explanation and nothing to give us any idea about what his life is like now outside of the Muppet world.
There are some extremely powerful moments in this film, especially where Clash interacts with children. In one tear-jerker of a scene, he meets with a terminally ill child; in another, a young aspiring puppeteer. Confirmed: Clash really seems to be a great guy. But it would be nice to know more. Even if the film is called Being Elmo and not Being Kevin, we are left to wonder too much.
Filmmaker Constance Marks has so much to work with here: a culturally iconic puppet, its hitherto relatively unknown (and incredibly likeable) puppeteer, extraordinary archival footage, candid interviews with the subject, family members and colleagues. Why not go a little deeper than a standard, two-dimensional portrait of a guy who followed his dreams? It’s a long street to travel down for what winds up being a ho-hum journey. Weird.
Being Elmo opens March 16 in Toronto at the Bloor Cinema.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
- Directed by Constance A. Marks
- Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg
- Classification: G
- 2.5 stars