Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey 

If you’re a parent, grandparent or otherwise have spent a lot of time with kids, chances are you have an appreciation for Elmo, the furry, red Muppet of “Sesame Street.”

Elmo’s cute but not ingratiating (mostly), sweet but with enough of a toddler’s self-absorption to keep things from getting too cloying. The documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” which screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, takes a page from its subject’s playbook to celebrate the artist behind the pop-culture phenomenon.

That artist is Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who breathed life into Elmo by giving the character a falsetto voice and a preschooler’s sweetness. As one interviewee notes, Clash is the superstar no one recognizes.

Raised in a modest neighborhood outside Baltimore, he immersed himself as a child in TV’s “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Wonderful World of Disney.” Shy and deferential, he was especially transfixed by Jim Henson’s Muppet creations on “Sesame Street.” The admiring boy began making his own puppets, cutting the fuzzy lining of his dad’s overcoat to fashion a monkey.

By the time Clash was 17, he had landed a gig on a local TV kids’ show and gained a valuable mentor in famed puppeteer Kermit Love. Within a couple of years, Clash entered the Henson fold, working on the movie “Labyrinth” and eventually earning a spot on “Sesame Street.”

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and benefited by an excess of remarkable archival footage, “Being Elmo” is an affable and charming look at an affable and charming personality. It is also fairly gushing; anyone expecting a warts-and-all documentary will be disappointed.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a surface approach, of course, but directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane allude to potentially meaty topics without delving any deeper. Clash concedes that his workaholic tendencies have made him something of an absent father to his teenaged daughter. That seems an irresistible irony for someone whose job is about delighting children, but “Being Elmo” pays it only perfunctory attention.

The documentary is most appealing when it lets Elmo be Elmo. Clash’s joy in performing is palpable, and it’s easy to understand when you see terminally ill children visiting Elmo on the “Sesame Street” set.

“I knew that Elmo should represent love,” Clash says, recounting how he shaped the puppet’s persona.

The cynical among us might scoff at such a pronouncement as being mawkish or pretentious, but such detractors are the very ones who need Elmo most of all.

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Phil Bacharach


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