Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, 2011.
Directed by Constance Marks.
A documentary on the man behind the Muppet – Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash.
I have little doubt in my mind that The Avengers will end up being my favourite movie of the year, but one film has come really close to taking the top spot in the form of Jason Segel’s attempt to bring The Muppets back into the public eye. But there was another Muppet related movie that made the headlines at film festivals around the world last year and did well amongst some film critics during its very small theatrical run a few months back. That film was Constance Mark’s documentary on Muppet legend Kevin Clash – the puppeteer behind Elmo.
The documentary charts Clash’s childhood obsession with the work of Jim Henson and his desires to be a puppeteer. From creating his very first puppet from his father’s coat to working at his local TV station before making the trip to New York to meet the legendary Kermit Love and working with his childhood hero. But of course, the real crux of the story comes from when Richard Hunt once threw a red puppet by the name of Elmo to him claiming he couldn’t get anything out of it and the character that Clash created that took the world by storm. It’s a really nice, touching and at times moving story of a young man’s dreams and how his hard work and dedication really paid off.
Clash’s work as Elmo really is something to admire and the film makes no bones about being a massive fan of his work. And when you see how happy he makes kids in schools or making dying children’s final wishes come true it really tugs at your heart strings as you realise just how much Clash has created a character that transcends the role of being a puppeteer. When you see interviews with The Muppets nowadays they use clever camera trickery and positioning to ‘hide the strings’ so to speak but Clash will happily stand in front of a child with Elmo and speak to them without hiding it’s him. What makes this so incredible to watch however is that the children never look at Clash, they only look at Elmo and it’s there you realise just how powerful a puppeteer and entertainer Clash is.
One of the highlights of the movie is the behind the scenes videos and pictures from the early days of The Muppets, Sesame Street and Labyrinth. This, coupled with great footage in Elmo’s history such as a few scenes during the days when Richard Hunt portrayed him as a Neanderthal simpleton that just wanted to smash things ,makes the film a joy to view. Watching Henson and Frank Oz operate the Muppets and to watch them do their voices so perfectly really is awe-inspiring and while there is the argument that part of the brilliance of The Muppets is not to look below the puppets, I feel this footage shows just how difficult a task puppeteering can be.
However, I do wish more was made of some of this footage which boils down to one simple flaw the film has. At times Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey feels more like Kevin Clash’s tribute to Jim Henson rather than a documentary on his life. When you see all this amazing footage of Henson and his workshop, you do often feel like you’d rather be watching that documentary than the one you’re currently watching which is a real shame because Being Elmo is a wonderful piece of film.
One scene othat irked me somewhat is shortly after Henson’s death in 1990 and we are treated to one of my all-time favourite videos which I posted in a Muppets article I wrote back in February. It’s of Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Kevin Clash performing one of Jim’s favourite songs ‘Just One Person’ at Jim’s memorial a few months after his passing. It’s a beautiful, touching and emotional moment in Muppet history but in Being Elmo, it plays as a backdrop to Clash discussing Jim’s influence and the video is given no background or relevance. They picked the right clip for the right moment, but didn’t give it the attention it truly deserves which, as a Muppets fan, slightly bothered me.
The film does delve into certain aspects of Clash’s life but these are never fully explored, such as his feelings of abandonment towards his daughter due to his touring commitments as Elmo and his reluctance to let anyone else take the role, as well as the failure of his marriage. The relationship with his daughter is somewhat given closure during footage of her sweet 16th but it is never given a truly satisfying conclusion. With a fairly short run time, the documentary had more than enough time to dig further into these matters to really make this a must-see movie.
My only other complaint about Being Elmo is the lack of Muppet-central interviews. We have a lot of interviews with Clash and his family which is all great but they make up 80% of the interview time across the entire movie. The film does feature interviews with legends such as Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), Marty Robinson (Mr. Snuffleupagus), Bill Baretta (Henson’s replacement for Dr. Teeth and others) and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird), but each of them only has two or so comments throughout the entire movie. You would have thought that these people would have had a lot to say about Clash and Elmo during the second half of the movie, given the impact he’s had on the Muppet world and the hard work he does but they seem so minor. I’d also make a complaint about a lack of other puppeteers such as Steve Whitmire and Jerry Nelson, but perhaps they couldn’t find the time to do it.
These however are simple and minor complaints. The documentary itself is very well put together and the amount of raw footage is just fantastic to watch if you’re a fan of the magic of the Muppets. My problems are more often than not personal ones (Henson’s memorial for example) and the lack of emphasis on his personal life was most likely down to Marks not wanting to tell that story and rather focus on the positives of Clash’s work. The film tells a brilliant story that beautifully comes round full circle in such a wonderful way and despite some of my problems I had with aspects of the documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is a fantastic and touching film that deserves to be seen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Luke Owen is a freelance copywriter working for Europe’s biggest golf holiday provider as their web content executive.