SXSW ’11 is drawing to a close Saturday evening, but I think I can happily close this book early after seeing the documentary BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY today at noon.
I am a huge Muppets fan and have followed Jim Henson’s career since I learned how to get to Sesame Street as a toddler. Bert and Ernie were always my favorite duo, but I was a devoted Kermit fan past the point of being cool in high school. (Turns out, the Muppets never went out of style though.)
But I was too old for the Elmo craze of the 90s, when Tickle Me Elmo dolls were the Holy Grail of Christmas toys and Sesame Street went digital and multi-cultural. He was cute and all, but he wasn’t my favorite by any stretch of the imagination. He was post-Henson Glory Days, in my opinion.
Still, my love of everything Muppety brought me in to BEING ELMO, an unobtrusive participant in the SXSW Film line-up. It’s the last day of the Film Festival and Music has stolen all the attention away from this gem of a movie showing at the Paramount. No fan-fare, not even a sold-out show, I was able to find a seat and relax to take it all in.
I had no idea I would start crying ten minutes into the movie, and continue off-and-on for the remainder of the movie. Man, this movie seriously snuck up on me.
Writers Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein tell a straight-forward tale of Elmo’s rise to fame thanks to the man who gave him a voice. Telling his story is none other than Whoopi Goldberg, (who I can only dream of one day narrating my life). Combining old TV spots with home videos and recent interviews, Shane and Weinstein tell a complete picture of a man that truly has a story of a journey worth hearing.
Kevin Clash is the subject of the documentary, the puppeteer that is, in fact, being Elmo on a daily basis. He is currently one of the primary driving forces behind PBS’s longest-running educational television series as an executive producer, a director and a star. In fact, his invention of the character of Elmo revitalized the franchise and saved Sesame Street from inevitable cancellation. Along with his fellow Street puppeteers (who were once his childhood idols), Clash is keeping Jim Henson’s legacy alive today.
But Clash’s childhood was not one of privilege, and seeing how far he rose is where his story achieves documentary-worthy status. Raised in the rough edges of Baltimore, MD, the African-American Clash was ridiculed by his peers and siblings for “playing with dolls” all the time. Only his parents really supported him in his creative endeavors. They encouraged him to keep building and developing his skills, recognizing their son was a prodigy of puppetry.
Clash began performing puppet shows for his siblings, for the neighborhood, for hospitals and eventually on-air at Baltimore’s CBS affiliate. His big breakthough came in high school when Clash visited the Muppet Factory in New York during a school field trip. There, a key figure in the franchise (hysterically named Kermit) took him under his wing and taught him the necessary steps to become a Muppet-level puppeteer.
Soon, Clash began performing alongside Captain Kangaroo and later on the set of Jim Henson’s movie Labyrinth. (Remember the song and dance scene with the dancing demons that can toss their eyeballs in the air and swallow them? That was his big break!) Henson noticed Clash’s ability and invited him to join the Sesame Street gang at the age of 25. Without hesitation, Clash moved in and never looked back.
It wasn’t until another puppeteer created Elmo and discarded the little red guy out of frustration that Clash truly made a name for himself. Imbuing Elmo with the heart and curiosity and love that his parents had shown him, Clash developed Elmo’s character to be young and naive and trusting and hopeful to reflect the children watching at home. Of course it was a success and you know how huge the character became in our cultural zeitgeist. But it was the efforts of a shy, lonely genius that brought this lovable monster into so many people’s lives.
Today, Clash appears everywhere with Elmo on his arm. He’s met the President, Oprah Winfrey and even appeared at the Oscars. Meeting Elmo has also become the most requested wish from the children at the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and Clash is able to make them smile the same way he did with his puppets back in the hospitals as a child.
People around the world know who Elmo is even without knowing who the quiet man is behind the puppet. Everyone should get to hear this man’s story, however, for the inspiration it provides to anyone struggling with a passion. And every parent should see this to know how to properly support your children in their endeavors.
Like I said, I could not stop crying throughout this movie. And I do not cry at movies. So make sure you’re ready to be inspired and with the right audience. Whether you’re a big fan of Elmo or just the Muppets in general, you are going to fall in love with this movie.
You can now count me as one of the believers.