Hot Docs Review: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

By  · Published on May 8th, 2011

by Lauren Flanagan

There’s nothing more likeable than a Muppet. I’m pretty sure that’s a proven fact. Whether you were a Sesame Street kind of kid, a lover of The Muppet Show or a fan of Fraggle Rock, chances are any show involving Muppets had the ability to bring a smile to your face – and hopefully it still does.

Constance Marks’ delightful documentary takes you beyond the foam heads and wacky personalities of the Muppets to get to know the people who bring them to life, specifically Kevin Clash, the man behind the most loving 3 ½ year old of all time, Elmo.

Kevin grew up in Baltimore, part of a large family living in a working class neighborhood. His fascination with puppets began at an early age and still hasn’t dissipated. Being a young boy who liked to play with puppets wasn’t always easy, but thanks to his supportive family and unyielding determination he carved out a niche for himself that has proven remarkably successful.

As much as this story is about Kevin’s journey, it’s also a moving tribute to Jim Henson. Kevin admired the master puppeteer from a young age and dreamed of one day becoming a part of Henson’s world. It was meeting Henson’s master puppet maker, Kermit Love, that ended up being the catalyst that set him on his path towards puppeteering fame. There’s a treasure trove of archival footage from the late 60s on, featuring Love, Jim Henson, Captain Kangaroo and the Sesame Street gang just to name a few. Truly, it’s a delight to watch.

A high point of the film is a segment where Kevin trains puppeteers for the French version of Sesame Street. I kid you not when I say it is amazing to watch the Muppets come to life in his hands. Other puppeteers struggle to convey emotions through their Muppets, but with barely a move of his wrist, Kevin imbues them with personality. What’s even more remarkable is when they’re all together rehearsing without the Muppets – just using their bare hands. The way Kevin can manipulate his hand and wrist is awesome.

The only complaint I have – and it’s not even really a complaint – is that the movie indicates Kevin had a few difficult personal issues but it never delves into them. An ex-wife is mentioned once, and difficulties he’s had with his daughter take up a few minutes of screen time, but what really happened is never explored. It would have been better to either delve into them a little further or not mention them at all. As it stands it leaves the audience wondering what kinds of trouble being Elmo caused Kevin’s family – because being a beloved children’s character involves a lot more than just filming a television show: there’s additional DVDs, personal appearances, charity work like meeting with kids from the Make a Wish Foundation and more. Kevin, being as generous as he is dedicates himself to all these endeavors, but possibly at the expense of his family. The movie offers a hint, but no more.

Despite this small flaw, Being Elmo is a great family documentary about the man behind an international icon. No matter what your age, there’s a good chance it’ll have you grinning from ear to ear. Bring the kids, bring the parents – this one’s for everyone.

Click here for more of our HotDocs 2011 coverage

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