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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (DVD Review)

31 Mar, 2012 By: John Latchem

Street 4/3/12
Box Office $0.3 million
$29.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG’ for some mild language including a brief drug reference.
Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.

To see Kevin Clash performing Elmo is to experience a subversion of all expectations. The idea of a big black guy channeling the meek, playful voice of a 4-year-old into a furry red puppet is not exactly an equation that adds up. Even his name suggests a persona more along the lines of a professional wrestler than the handler of a “Sesame Street” Muppet.

But Being Elmo, the engrossing new documentary directed by Constance Marks, aligns all the variables to show us just how Clash ended up in such an unlikely place.

Growing up on the outskirts of Baltimore in the 1960s, Clash fell in love with puppetry through shows such as “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sesame Street.” He became obsessed with the Muppets and would watch anything involving their creator, Jim Henson. Inspired, Clash created a monkey puppet out of his father’s trenchcoat, and started doing shows for local kids.

In the late 1970s, Clash sought out one of Henson’s cohorts, the Muppet-builder Kermit Love (no relation to the frog), a meeting captured by a syndicated TV show. The existence of this footage proves to be a boon for the documentary, since it provides a solid narrative thread that pays off at the end.

Love taught Clash some of the secrets of creating the Muppets, such as how to sew parts together without leaving a seam (it involves using fleece). For those curious about the process, there is a lot of footage here of how Muppets are made.

As a reward, Clash was invited to perform Cookie Monster on the “Sesame Street” float in the 1979 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

After Clash worked on “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Great Space Coaster,” Henson brought him into the Muppet fold on “Sesame Street” in 1984.

Soon after, Clash was handed the Elmo puppet after several attempts to develop the character had stalled. Elmo had appeared as a background character on the show since the early 1970s, when he was known as Baby Monster and generally spoke with a deep, gruff voice. Clash took it in a different direction, and Elmo’s popularity grew to the point where the character dominated the show, much to the chagrin of many long-time fans.

Clash would continue to take on other Muppet roles, and even appeared with Henson on “The Arsenio Hall Show” two weeks before Henson died in 1990.

Not one to step on the roots of his own success, Clash meets with young puppeteers to help them achieve their dreams, just as Love and Henson once helped him. To further the parallel, the primary protégé profiled here, Tau Bennett, is seen in a deleted scene performing in the Macy’s Parade. You know Bennett means business when he’s able to identify all the puppeteers in a mural on Clash’s office wall. (Some Internet research reveals that Bennett, at age 11, is already performing characters on “Sesame Street.)

Other extras include interviews with the filmmakers, a Sundance Film Festival Q&A and an interview with Avenue Q puppeteer John Tartaglia.

For Muppets enthusiasts, Being Elmo is a great peek behind the curtain of the puppet empire and a nice companion piece to the recently released The Muppets film. Viewers might also want to check out the 1984 documentary Henson’s Place, released a few years ago by Lionsgate.

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