Star of Sesame Street Elmo, the beloved red fur ball that loves to hug, is known the world over. But who is the man behind the muppet? Constance Marks’ award-winning documentary Being Elmo (2011) asks just that and takes a look at the life of Kevin Clash, the man who from childhood was obsessed with becoming a puppeteer.
Charting Clash’s life from his working class upbringing in 1960s Baltimore, Maryland to his work with Jim Henson, the documentary gives a sugar coated, heart-warming, if somewhat superficial, inside account explaining the man behind a worldwide phenomenon. There are a series of heart-warming accounts that show Clash’s early dedication, including the story of him cutting up his father’s coat to make one of his first puppets – fortunately his father’s reaction was simply to suggest that he ask next time.
The enjoyment of this film is also to be found in seeing the talent of Clash blossom. There is archive footage of him meeting both Kermit Love and Jim Henson, as well as family photos of early projects including working on Captain Kangaroo and local TV stations. Clash clearly derives a great deal of pleasure from making kids happy, as depicted in a heart warming scene where Clash meets a child from the Make a Wish Foundation. Also fun is seeing the loving creation of the puppets that are assembled from everything from coffee cups to plastic balls cut in half.
Whilst the film is as cuddly as a ‘Tickle-Me Elmo’, the subject matter is treated at only surface level, not helped by very stilted commentary from Whoopi Goldberg. Disappointingly, the documentary never truly engages with any of the potentially interesting and prickly territory such as being a young, poor black kid trying to break into showbiz in the 1970s. Clash also had a prolific career within his field and this is scantly touched upon with a brief foray into his work as one of the Fireys in Henson’s beloved 1986 classic Labyrinth.
Being Elmo also ignores other aspects of his career, which include working on both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and his role as Baby Sinclair in the 1990s American sitcom The Dinosaurs. More surprisingly, many key cameos such as appearances on the popular HBO drama The West Wing and ABC comedy Scrubs – that show the level of Elmo’s popularity – have been ignored.
In an age where the joy of making kids smile is somewhat sidelined, Being Elmo is a refreshing, light documentary that is a pleasure for those of us who grew up on The Muppets and Sesame Street. Had it been a little deeper though, it could have been a much better film.