REVIEW: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 80 minutes | Release Date: October 21st, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Submarine Entertainment
Director(s): Constance Marks
Writer(s): Philip Shane & Justin Weinstein

“Kevin comes alive through Elmo”

I was a Jim Henson kid growing up in the 80s. The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and “The Jim Henson Hour” were staples in my household and I even made my parents take me to see The Witches theatrically at eight. But where I enjoyed the stories and fantastical places his characters took me, Kevin Clash took a shine to the full theatricality of this genius. As a high school kid in Baltimore he hand-sewed his own puppets after watching Henson explain how on TV, performed for local boys and girls in his neighborhood, and wished to one day step foot in his idol’s workshop. Only his mother can honestly say she knew he’d get there, but watching him become a cultural icon is something altogether different. Children everywhere know his voice and now we’re finally able to put a face to the phenomenon.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey—you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Who cares?” I’ll tell you: anyone who has ever had a dream. Just because the profession Clash chose was performing as cloth creatures brought to life by imagination doesn’t make his life story any less important than someone who saw the lunar landing in 1969 and later grew up to be an astronaut. Jim Henson was Kevin’s Neil Armstrong, (in the same year too, mind you); he was the pioneer that taught a young boy how to reach people and make them smile. Only an experimental show named “Sesame Street”, with a multi-racial cast and a caring dynamic between adults and children, was able to make him feel at home when most television shows were too gentrified to relate with. And when Bert and Ernie looked into the camera and spoke directly at him, there was no turning back.

Constance Marks‘ film isn’t a look behind the scenes of “Sesame Street” or the Muppets. The Henson creation on display is the superfan who has since replaced him as leader on the show he loved growing up. At a paltry 80-minutes, Marks never steers off course into more salacious details like Clash’s divorce—even when the subject allows him to acknowledge his regret at missing his daughter Shannon’s youth—or the corruption of fame. Instead we see a bright young man who prevailed over classmates mocking him for playing with dolls rather than a basketball. We watch his steady rise, the friendly assistance, and the talent that got him to the top. Never complacent or looking to sit on his laurels as the machine continued forward, Clash actually refused help during the Elmo craze of ‘Tickle Me’ and the like. He was Elmo and he would never take it for granted.

How he started really is an astonishing, feel good tale. Kevin reminisces his loving “Captain Kangaroo”, wanting to live at Disney World, and cutting up his father’s trench coat in order to use the lining for his first puppet, Moandy the Monkey. His initial fear in anticipating a father’s reaction once the deed was done washed away when Mr. Clash simply asked the furry creature’s name and for a promise to ask next time before destroying something else. This support bolstered his excitement and drive to manufacture more and begin performing for the kids his mother babysat at home. From there came shows for handicapped children in the area, a tryout with Stu Kerr on his local Channel 2 show “Caboose”, and eventually a role opposite Robert Keeshan himself on one of his favorite shows—and this is all before nineteen.

The journey from there is a never-ending string of successful auditions and a laundry list of puppeteering luminaries becoming fast friends. Kermit Love—costume designer for the likes of Big Bird—taught him tricks like the ‘Henson stitch’, what material was best to use, and coached him how to perform in motion and voice; Richard Hunt boosted his confidence after Kevin played Cookie Monster in the Macy’s Day Parade by telling him at the after party to “tell Jim what you do” because the workshop had yet to employ a black puppeteer; and at twenty-five Clash found himself in London filming Labyrinth and cementing his position as a Henson regular. It’s a series of events only accessible to someone talented and worthy—Kevin earned every single second of his success. Watching his humble appreciation recalling his name in flashing by in Labyrinth‘s opening credits tells me this truth.

But what makes Being Elmo so captivating is the fact all these memories have been captured on film. The Clash family must have been on the cusp of technology as we’re privy to a wealth of home movies along with candid footage behind the scenes. We watch Kevin leave for NYC as a seventeen year old using a school trip to meet Kermit Love as crisply as we watch him film his ex-wife going into labor. It’s as though someone knew what kind of man he would be and wanted it all documented in order to inspire young dreamers at home unsure if their hopes were achievable. Couple this with show recordings to experience Clash breathing life into characters like Hoots the Owl, Nobel Price, and Clifford and it’s easy to see why Henson and his team took him under their wing as an equal.

It’s hard to fathom anyone else portraying the cutely lovable Elmo—Richard Hunt originated him with gruff, caveman-esque grammar—but discovering the perfect union is amazing. Frank Oz said he needed to “find one special hook” and by looking back to his parents’ infinite wealth of love and support Kevin realized new generations of children needed love most. Hugs and kisses made this furry, bright red creature capture the adoration of the world, but Elmo’s ability to touch souls and grant dying kids their Make-A-Wish is what humbled Kevin into understanding it was all bigger than himself. A lesser man would have grabbed the cash and watched others take the reigns, but Clash is too similar to idol Henson. Now head puppeteer, director, and coach on “Sesame Street”, as well as retaining performance duties, he still takes the time to educate aspiring talents like Kermit taught him.

This is a story about beating the odds and refusing to quit. Elmo is nothing without Clash and besides the high-pitched voice and toddler’s sense of English Kevin truly plays himself every time he dons the microphone. Kind-hearted, hardworking, modest, and full of love, it’s wonderful to finally see him receive the recognition he deserves.

[1] Kevin and Elmo meet a friend.
[2] Kevin Clash performing for local children in Baltimore in 1975.
[3] Kevin sewing a puppet while Director of Photography James Miller films.

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