Thanks to the success of the recent Muppets revival flick – a sequel to which has just been cheekily announced by Disney – interest in the work of Jim Henson is higher than any other time in recent memory.
With that in mind, has there ever been a riper moment for a documentary that looks into ‘the soul of a puppeteer’? In a stroke of serendipitous movie magic, this week we are treated to the release Being Elmo, a biographical documentary about Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash. The timing couldn’t be better, and, what’s more, the film isn’t half bad either.
Across a trim 80 minutes, director Constance Marks traverses not only Clash’s personal story, but also a detailed profile of the Elmo character itself. Puppetry, it seems, is unique among childlike pursuits, because Clash’s hobby, while in many ways reclusive and individualistic, was from the outset aimed outwards. His first audiences were neighbourhood kids, and he soon graduated to schools, hospitals, and local stages. Even when larger gigs came calling – regional television, national networks, and, eventually, Henson himself – the puppeteer retained this two-headed focus on the craft itself, and the capacity of his creations to entertain others.
And then there’s Elmo. Originally a second-string character in the Sesame Street roster, in Clash’s hands the little red monster became the show’s breakout star. However, in typically sincere fashion, the character’s popularity as both a television personality and as a must-buy Christmas gift is boiled down to suitably, unabashedly sentimental traits. Elmo, we are told, represents love.
Much of the success of Bobin, Stoller and Segel’s Muppet relaunch came from their spot-on recreation of the sentimental, self-aware but never smug style of the source series. In many ways, Marks has achieved the same feat here, translating Elmo’s generous, infectiously enthusiastic qualities into documentary form. The tone throughout is one of unquestioning, wide-eyed awe, and the effect is closer to spending an hour-or-so with an excitable fan, than watching a sober profile.
Talking heads from a bunch of key Muppet folk (Frank Oz, Fran Brill, among others), and endless archive footage should come as standard, but it’s in its unapologetic interest in the craft behind the scenes that Being Elmo is really effective. For example, have you heard of the fabled ‘Henson stitch’, the special method of concealing seams, which gave the Muppets a smooth, unique finish? Or, for that matter, have you ever seen a puppeteer try out various voices on a new creation, and discover a character on camera? Such little moments are priceless, as are the utterly disarming scenes of Clash’s – and Elmo’s – continued work with the Make A Wish Foundation.
Once it has hooked you, Being Elmo has the potential to be as inspiring and transformative as its subject, which more than makes up for the subtle flaws behind Marks’ directorial polish. More demanding viewers may notice that Clash’s story, supposedly the film’s key narrative, peters out barely halfway through the film’s already short runtime. Others may pick up on the loose threads of the profile – phrases like ‘ex-wife’, and hints at estranged daughters which, in a more hard-nosed, cynical film, could have been explored further.
Nevertheless, Being Elmo succeeds precisely because of this lack of cynicism. It is heartfelt, touching, and completely in keeping with the spirit of Henson’s fuzzy-felt creations. If anything – and this is a double-edged comment – it reveals that the people behind these classic characters have not only their own unique stories to tell, but a great deal of charisma, too. So why should Clash get all the attention? Why don’t the others get a look in?
Indeed, if there was ever a perfect time for a comprehensive Muppeteer documentary, wouldn’t it be now?