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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)

| May 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

There’s an impulse within some people to create that becomes a single-minded passion. Kevin Clash remembers when the itch to create puppets first struck him. At a young age, he laid eyes on the perfect fabric and was propelled to start cutting, shaping and molding until he had created the image that was in his head. The problem, he remembered, was that the fabric came off of his father’s coat. Awaiting a horrendous response, his father came home and told him. “Next time . . . ask”.

In a way this was a desire never left him. Brought up in a middle-class family in Baltimore, Clash had a shy personality and learned that creating puppets seemed like a means of expression. He designed puppets in his bedroom and put on shows for the kids in his mother’s daycare. The creative impulse to design puppets was with him, he confesses, even before he knew what a Muppet was, although it didn’t exactly make him a social prize.  Kids around him accused him of playing with dolls. The teasing stopped when he was given a chance to work on a local television show while he was still in high school.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is a proper title because it carries us along on Clash’s journey from a shy kid in Baltimore to not only a successful career as a puppeteer, but also as the producer and director of “Sesame Street.”  His journey seems to have been divided into equal parts determination and luck that eventually put him in contact with Jim Henson, whom Clash seems to have regarded the same way most kids look as sports heroes or Superman.  So great was his love for puppeteering and of the Muppets that he seemed to have regarded Henson, Frank Oz and Muppet designer Kermit Love as some sort of Holy Trinity.  Clash describes the heartrending task of having to turn down Henson’s offer to work on The Dark Crystal because he was working on two local kids shows back home.  He would later accept a small part in Labyrinth.

The encounter with Henson would lead him to “Sesame Street” and to his biggest success.  One day, puppeteer Richard Hunt became frustrated while operating a small red monster whose deep caveman voice made it sound like a junior-league Cookie Monster.  During the break he threw the puppet at Clash, who rethought the voice into a falsetto and ultimately brought Elmo to life.  By taking away the caveman voice and giving him a gentler manner, Clash was able to endear Elmo to preschoolers in a way that few creations ever have.  Elmo had the dimensions of a child that little kids could relate to.  What Clash was able to bring out in Elmo would make him a global phenomenon, culminating in riots over the Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls in the mid-90s which had parents literally fighting one another in the aisles of toy stores.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is focused almost exclusively on Kevin Clash’s work.  His personal life, outside of his upbringing, remains only in faint glimmers on the edges of the journey.  He mentions his ex-wife but mainly talk about his daughter.  Discussing his creative instincts, he is realistic on the point that he can create any kind of Muppet but nothing compares to creating a child.  There is mention of his ex-wife and we are left only to surmise that the relationship ended because of Clash’s total dedication to his work.  We see a guy who is loving, happy, good-hearted and hard-working, but we only see faint images of his life now.  He is able to give his daughter a massive sweet-sixteen party with birthday wishes from Jack Black and L.L. Cool J, but little of his current life is actually covered.

The movie culminates with the death of Jim Henson, and this – based on the film – seems to be his only dark chapter.  Realizing his dream of working with his hero, he remembers going on The Arsenio Hall Show and afterwards, noticing that Jim was coughing.  The next phone call he got delivered the bad news.

What is special about Kevin Clash is not only his skill at creating Muppets but his skill at bringing them to life.  We see him in action as he explains that even when the Muppets aren’t talking, you have to keep them moving so they won’t seem immobile.  Most Muppets don’t have eyes that move independently, and their clam-like mouths don’t do anything more than just open and close, but Clash is able to work around that.  One moment in particular explains that clenching his fist while operating Elmo will give the character a bashful look.  A twist of the fingers and Elmo looks confused.  It is those details that make the Muppets so enduring

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2011) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary