Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: NR
Genre: Documentary
A documentary about Kevin Clash, the guy behind the fuzzy red "Sesame Street" character.
Starring: Kevin Clash
Director: Constance Marks
Running time: 1:16
Release: Opened Nov 11, 2011
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Editorial Review

This Clash emits harmony

By Michael O'Sullivan

Friday, Nov 11, 2011

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit something up front. I have never been a fan of the furry, red and adenoidal mop-top whose reputation for speaking in the third person - "Elmo loves you!" - suggests that "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" could be an 85-minute version of "Nightmare on Sesame Street."

To my surprise, it was not.

That's entirely thanks to the man behind this particular Muppet, Kevin Clash, the Maryland-born-and-bred puppeteer about whom this sweet, if lightweight, documentary was made. Thankfully, there's a lot of Clash, the first African American puppeteer to work with the late Jim Henson, and not much Elmo. Or not so much as to steal the spotlight from Clash and his inspiring rise from neighborhood puppeteer in Baltimore County to high-powered "Sesame Street" producer.

I even got a little verklempt watching the genial Clash work his magic, through Elmo, on a sick Make-a-Wish child.

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the film follows Clash from his earliest attempts at homemade puppetry - including a monkey stitched from the lining of his father's winter coat - through stints on Baltimore TV and "Captain Kangaroo" and on to his current position as Muppet Captain. It's a job that entails traveling to, say, France, to train a crew of puppeteers working on "5, Rue Sesame," the French version of the global conglomerate known as "Sesame Street."

The film is filled with so much insider Muppet lore that, at times, it strains even the goodwill that Clash generates. Admittedly, there are some cool scenes, such as the archival footage in which an 18-year-old Clash is shown meeting legendary Muppet designer Kermit Love, who shows him drawer after drawer of Muppet eyeballs. But a little of that goes a long way.

Cooler still is a sequence showing Clash today giving a similar tour to another aspiring young African American puppeteer. What goes around comes around.

And that's the moral of this story. Or one of them, anyway. Clash's success is shown as the result of a combination of talent, gumption, pluck, misadventure, supportive parents, following your dreams, luck and, yes, love.

It's a plot worthy of the forthcoming move "The Muppets," which, I have it on good authority, does not feature you-know-who.

Contains nothing objectionable.