Monday, 18 July 2016

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
Director: Constance A. Marks
Released: 2012

Plot: Documentary about Kevin Clash the man best known as being the puppeteer behind Elmo, following him from his early years as an aspiring puppeteer from Baltimore, to eventually meeting legendry puppet maker Kermit Love and Muppets creator Jim Henson and finally in what would possibly be the most significant moment of his career, finding a way to bring Elmo to life.

Review: Recently my son William has become obsessed with Elmo causing him to try and hug the TV when he is on, which ironically it was also this same time that they decided to not show any more episodes of  “Elmo’s World”, leaving me stuck with the same two episodes I had taped for him on the SKY+ box now on seemingly constant repeat.

Still the appeal of the fuzzy red monster is a powerful thing, as a few years back there were riots and people queuing outside of toy stores all trying get their hands on a “tickle me Elmo”, while “Sesame Street” also failed to get picked up by nearly every Network until one Network head caught her Granddaughter trying to hug Elmo through the TV screen though perhaps even she wouldn’t predict what a monster hit the show would go on to become.  So perhaps it was the desire to try and figure out the appeal of Elmo, especially when the Muppets universe is filled with so many memorable and colourful characters, what is it that makes him so special, all answers I was hoping to find with this documentary.

Kevin Clash might not be aswell known as some of the puppeteers, especially when it comes to the Jim Henderson Workshop which includes such legends as Frank Oz, Bill Barretta and Carroll Spinney amongst it’s ranks, yet he is arguably just as important, especially seeing how he is the creative force behind Sesame St working as producer, director aswell being the head trainer for other puppeteers, let alone the man responsible for one the biggest cash cows of the Muppet franchise, while perhaps at the same time  sacrificing other parts of his life for his love of puppets and it’s his story the documentary sets out to tell.

For someone who has achieved so much Kevin Clash comes across surprisingly humble especially considering how much he has achieved throughout his career, yet he still comes across like a guy who still can’t believe that he is getting to do the job he does, while at the same time clearly having a passion for his art, which this documentary frequently shows it is a lot more than funny voices and exaggerated movements, as he is  shown demonstrating a fierce attention to even the most minute of details somthing especially seen during his training session held with the French cast of Sesame Street, while later scenes show that he is equally passionate with training the next generation of puppeteers when he takes a break from his busy schedule to meet with a young puppeteer.
Starting with Clash as a young boy, being inspired by the puppets he saw on TV, to the point were he ransacked his parents closest for a fur coat which would soon become his first creation, with his talent soon landing his parts on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster” while gaining a mentor in Kermit Love.

Luckily for director Constance Marks, Clashes life it would seem has been extensively documented on film so rather than the usual collection of snapshots of her subject’s early years, we get to bare witness to Clash learning his craft and seeing the development as the years pass, with a video camera seemingly always on hand for all of his key moments from performing for the kids his mother looked after with only a bed sheet hung over a washing line as backdrop to his first meeting with Kermit Love, while the extensive amount of footage here frequently provides a deeper insight into the backstage workings of not only the making of Sesame St but also the Muppet movies aswell, with Clash unknown to myself before watching this documentary has worked on nearly all of them with cult classic “The Dark Crystal” getting particular focus as a missed opportunity which Clash elaborates on his regret at missing due to his filming commitments on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster” both of which would ironically be axed shortly after and his excitement at getting a second shot at working with Jim Henderson on the equally cult “Labyrinth”.

Narration of Clash’s story is given to Whoopi Goldberg though apart from appearing throughout the early scenes, this commentary mysterious disappears until almost the end, making me wonder why they even bothered to include it in the first place, especially when Clash seems more than happy to tell his own story. Meanwhile the soundtrack feels frequently to be trying to retch the emotion from the audience, giving things at time a real false sense of sentimentality, while director Marks is happy to cut out parts of Clash’s life such as his ex-wife who only gets mention in passing by Clash, with her focus seemingly more on his journey as a puppeteer than anything resembling a full picture of his life.

While Clash might be the star of the show, his story is frequently focused on how it intertwines with the lives of the most famous puppeteers with Jim Henderson, Frank Oz and Kermit Love’s stories frequently appearing alongside Clash’s and how they worked to further what the Muppets had established while how Clash came to become Elmo’s sole puppeteer seems almost accidental, seeing how it was only after one frustrated puppeteer challenged him to make the puppet’s character work, that the Elmo we now love was born, with rare stock footage showing the caveman Esq. persona had before, showing just how one lucky break can really change a persons fortunes.

Obviously recorded prior to Clash's legal issues and eventual retirement from playing the character, the documentary really focuses on him during the height of his career and while for latecomers to the film it might seem incomplete as a result of this, it does however still provide a full portrait of the man behind the puppet which honestly is what most will watch this one far, rather than his personal life.

The problem that this documentary suffers from though is that Clash is not the most interesting of documentary subjects, with Marks seemingly being so determined to cut around any darker parts of Clash’s life outside of the sudden death of Jim Henderson, you can’t help but feel that the documentary would have worked better had it focused on Henderson’s Workshop as a whole rather than focusing on just one puppeteer, even though he undeniably an important and highly talented member of the company, but as a documentary subject it would have worked as an hour long special, but as a feature it feels far too ponderous in places, even though it does provide at times a fascinating insight into what it takes to truly be a master puppeteer, aswell as going some way to explain the world’s obsession with an adorable furry red monster named Elmo.


  1. I really enjoyed this documentary and was subsequently crushed with the allegations about Clash that came out later on. I think I've tried to block the whole documentary from my mind.

    1. I've been surprised that they managed to keep the Elmo brand alive without him, especially when he's shown as the sole puppeteer for Elmo.

      Now I just really want to watch the Big Bird documentary


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...