Dir. Constance Marks, USA, 85mins, 2012
Review by Matthew Rodgers
If you were recently charmed by Kermit & Co.’s triumphant return to the big screen then this gentle look into the puppeteer’s world is an insightful necessity. In no way shattering any illusions by stripping away the fuzzy felt, instead it exacerbates the magic by presenting a human character imbued with a passion for an art-form which has a lot of life left in it yet.
The chances are you’ve never heard of Kevin Clash, despite him being the life spark behind one of the most beloved Sesame Street inhabitants of all time and back pack, lunchbox, and cuddly doll adorning characters of the last decade, Elmo.
Using home-video footage which pre-empts his success, this documentary charts how a passion for performing from an early age, littered with socks and wobbly eyes would lead him to cross paths with the puppet master himself, the late Jim Henson, and fulfil his dreams of entertaining kids across the world.
The fact that you know Clash is brilliant at what he does, and that the relatively struggle-free journey that he takes to Being Elmo is established quite early on, might make you question what the modus operandi for the film is? Why should we be interested in a guy that shoves his hand up a Muppets backside for a living? Documentaries are for scraping the underbelly of society or revealing scandals, aren’t they?
Being Elmo is as wholesome and uplifting as any tale the Muppets have ever told; it’s refreshing to find a story that is simply about one man’s intention to fulfil his ambition and then use it to do good.
Clash is a man who emanates enthusiasm; whether it’s as a teenager making his first appearance on local cable television, or as an adult, educating fellow puppeteers on the subtle nuances involved in hiding the arm rods whilst Elmo scratches his head, and teaching them how to keep the puppet smiling; in doing so it will also make the viewer do the same.
The inspirational vibe is prevalent in two key moments that encapsulate the films intentions; one involves the heartbreaking moment in which Elmo meets a sick child. Despite Clash being in view during the entire exchange, the young girls focus is always on the character he brings to life on the end of his arm. It’s testament to him that he uses his remarkable gift in this humbling way.
The second is the sequence that deals with the death of Jim Henson, a man with similar values to Clash, whom he inspired and later hired and befriended. The memorial song performed by man and Muppet is heartbreaking stuff. But the melancholic observation that “a little of the magic is gone” is surely made redundant after watching how Henson has inspired Clash to become the grounded and utterly likeable man that this delightful documentary paints him to be. There’s the magic right there.