directed by Constance Marks
My 2-year-old nephew's favourite YouTube video is a "Sesame Street" clip where Elmo's birthday card to fellow monster Rosita is swept away by the wind. It's a bizarre little skit, devoid of anything like closure or uplift, but the nephew gets caught up in it every time. He narrates, tearing up and saying, "Oh no!" as Elmo does, and asking where the card went, though he already knows. Then it ends, and he promptly demands, "Again." I didn't know what to make of this at first, but my sense, watching Constance Marks's Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, is that the titular red guy is a sort of Everykid for preschoolers, feeling what they feel. The film charts Kevin Clash's impressive rise from inner-city Baltimore puppeteer to one of Jim Henson's trusted collaborators. It's a straightforward and strictly chronological account, beginning with his preteen years of making puppets out of his dad's trench coats and following him through to his work on "Captain Kangaroo," Labyrinth, and most importantly "Sesame Street." Long-time Muppet ally Whoopi Goldberg is our throughline, narrating in her sweetest story time voice and telling us things like, "One of Kevin's first characters was Hoots the Owl!" as we see, well, Hoots the Owl.
All of this is fairly diverting on the level of an intense Google search, although the subject's family appeal obviously limits the insights to which we're granted access. The film is most compelling when Marks abandons the historical namedropping tour and explores the emotional pull these puppets have on the kids (and parents) who get caught up in their wind-got-my-card catastrophes. "I knew that he should represent love," Clash says of the Muppet's rebranding from another puppeteer's surly caveman type in his first appearance. It'd be easy to dismiss his assessment as pop psychology, but Clash puts his finger on Elmo's primal appeal as an ever-loving and never-aging toddler without guile, a quixotic audience surrogate who pretty much anyone can get behind.
Marks gets a lot of mileage out of behind-the-scenes material where Clash demonstrates his craft. There's a fascinating moment in which he coaches a puppeteer for the French-language version of "Sesame Street" not on method so much as character development, emphasizing the importance of movement in keeping a character in play. "Certain things that we do make them look human," he tells her, demonstrating that a puppet with its mouth closed doesn't seem pensive but dead. We also get an uncanny tutorial of Elmo's repertoire of expressions, as Clash races through everything from happy Elmo to pleading Elmo like a proper showman. It's refreshing to see this momentary indulgence of ego from someone whose art is selfless to the point of being invisible, as we're reminded when we see footage of Jim Henson interviewed by Arsenio Hall--propped by a puppet Clash is commandeering from behind the couch.
The film could have used more of this curiosity about what drives a person into such a self-effacing art form. Clash's (lovely) parents announce early on that neighbours would always openly wonder why a working-class black teen would put on puppet shows for neighbourhood kids instead of playing basketball, and it's suggested that he had a difficult life because of this difference that no one in the film cares to articulate further. Indeed, there's an interesting movie to be made about a methodical man who, when meeting his idol (Big Bird designer Kermit Love) in New York, wonders aloud about how he can never seem to find the right puppet fur in Baltimore, but Being Elmo isn't it. Still, at its best, it offers a nice if overly tidy glimpse into how puppeteering is as much an affective as a technical art.-Angelo Muredda
originally published March 16, 2012
Being Elmo screens in Toronto from March 16-21 at the newly reopened Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.