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‘Being Elmo’: Covering Raw Talent With Bright Red Fur

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 22, 2011

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is a job documentary at heart. You take a person who has a really interesting job that he’s very good at — here, playing probably the most popular Muppet to hit Sesame Street since the show premiered — and you look at the road that got him there and what that job is actually like. And even if Elmo is not your thing (as is the case with many adults), it’s a very good job documentary.

Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo, is a surpassingly lovely guy by all indications, as you know if you heard him play Not My Job on Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! in 2006. To watch him put Elmo on his arm and greet children — as he did after the documentary screening Tuesday night — is to see a deeply gifted performer in action. Elmo can say to a kid, “Elmo loves you. Now go home!” and it feels warm to the child and dryly funny to the parent. Clash was right on the edge of cracking himself up a few times as Elmo greeted kids who looked surprisingly old (or “tall,” as Elmo put it) for an Elmo meet-and-greet, which was lovely to see. The guy still makes himself laugh talking in silly voices, and that says a lot about his continued success, I think.

The heroes of Being Elmo, in some ways, are Clash’s parents, who never blinked at his burgeoning interest in building and operating puppets — which had, by the time he was in high school, gotten him working at a local Baltimore TV station on a kids’ show. They supported him, they didn’t fret about the fact that he didn’t go to college because he went straight from high school to New York for work, and at least one person in the film takes the position that Elmo’s open and limitless love of children is not, as many believe, an embodiment of Clash himself, but of his mom and dad.

Certainly, Being Elmo is not as daring or hard-hitting as some of the other films screening at Silverdocs, but there are some very important takeaways here. Not only about the parents who encouraged without judging, but about the daughter who was smart enough to recognize at about 15 that her incredibly busy dad wasn’t spending as much time with her as she wanted and to ask him to spend more before she left for college — which he did. And about the bosses at Channel 2 in Baltimore who, despite their love of his work and the fact that they’d discovered a very young genius in his field, pushed him out the door to bigger opportunities, because it was the right thing to do for him. And about Kermit Love, the master puppetmaker who made Clash his personal project and introduced him to Jim Henson.

A lot of the film is really about how a person with talent takes ultimate responsibility for his own progress on the one hand but is mentored and guided by other people on the other. You can identify these very important moments in Clash’s life, almost like checkpoints: turning down a job offer from Henson for The Dark Crystal because he had two television series going, only to see them both canceled, which led him to work with Henson on Labyrinth; persevering with Elmo after a very experienced Sesame Street puppeteer had thrown him down in disgust; going to visit Love in New York and discovering all the materials he’d been doing without in making his own puppets. There are big nods to mentoring, to persevering, and to returning favors that have been given to you — including a fantastic sequence near the end in which Clash meets a kid who comes off very much like the Kevin Clash of the future.

(Be warned: the documentary includes some of the footage of Henson’s funeral that’s been seen widely on YouTube, and it may very well make you cry all over yourself.) (I’m not kidding: that clip is NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.)

It’s a fairly straightforward but very good documentary about the translation of talent into a livelihood, and it’s very much worth seeing when you can — it’s getting a theatrical release, but if that doesn’t work, it will be easy to find on video down the line. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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