Film Review: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Vicarious is the word of the day here; living through something else, in this case a fuzzy red monster with an unstoppably optimistic and giddy outlook. The man behind him is a shy introvert by the name of Kevin Clash, whom you may or may not have heard of. His shyness isn’t so much of a surprise given the timidity of many artists; here it’s fitting enough given his hobby-turned-multi-million dollar profession. This is ultimately a film about a man communicating through his puppet, although that is at least the premise it begins with, it ultimately follows through a story of the power of inspiration; the true key to all art.
The ‘journey’ (to use such a clichéd term) of Clash from puppet prodigy to expert Muppeteer is one built upon dreams, simple ones at that; visiting Disneyland, standing shoulder to shoulder with Captain Kangaroo and breaking out from a modest existence. There is a genuine sweetness to Clash’s parent’s and their support, ranging from their bemused proudness after a young Kevin cut up an expensive mink coat and turned it into a googly-eyed puppet (“next time, just ask” Clash reveals in the endearing anecdote) to their enthusiasm for his talents. Those talents are extensively documented here, including screen tests and b-roll footage of Clash’s visits to Jim Henson’s Muppet fabricator Kermit Love. Those who spent their childhood assuring themselves that Big Bird and Grover were in fact alive may want to sidestep the film’s unearthing of the Muppet workshop: rolls of fuzzy cloth, felt and drawers full of interchangeable Muppet eyes are revealed. Henson himself is of course featured as the pivotal player here, the ultimate master to Clash’s apprentice, even before the two of them finally work together. The death of Henson is covered here and the ceremony is detailed with a musical tribute to the man performed by all of his fellow Muppeteers visibly holding back tears. Anyone who’s seen Frank Oz’s tear-jerking tribute to Henson knows the profundity of Henson’s influence.
Many Muppet alumni are of course featured here; Frank Oz being the closest living Muppet connection to Henson. Regular Muppet guest Whoopi Goldberg is oddly enough the only loose end, her narration feels strangely unmemorable and at times absent (there are times when the film seems to do fine without her commentary), very surprising given her reams of vocal charisma and gravitas. The fact that just about every highlight of Clash’s career is highlighted-including his involvement in Labyrinth to the hysteria that followed the release of ‘Tickle Me Elmo (“shouldn’t it just be ‘Tickle Elmo?’” Clash comments on Elmo’s use of third person terms) – and the fact that film never sags or feels bloated is an achievement. It’s consistently optimistic tone always maintains a sense of joy and sensitivity, even when Clash is struck by the dying wishes of children to meet Elmo. You’ll be hard pressed not to be reaching for a tissue during this revelation.
The documentary is revealing and intriguing, it’s certainly not confrontational (it’s U certificate picture, what you see is what you get) but it doesn’t need to be in this context. Adults will be endeared and nostalgic, younger viewers will be inspired and fascinated by the creativity on display here. If there is one major recommendation here, it’s that Being Elmo is probably one of the most inspirational movies currently on release.