It hadn’t quite occurred to me before I watched the uplifting new documentary Being Elmo, but the little red Sesame Street Muppet who talks in the third person and loves his goldfish and crayons was one of the first names both of my children ever knew. In their lives, “Elmo” almost immediately followed (or even preceded, sniff) “mama” and “daddy.” That’s an extraordinarily significant role for a fictional creature to play in my family’s life. (Even as I write this, Elmo is talking to my daughter about “potty time.”) Having seen this film on the life of Kevin Clash, the 51-year-old puppeteer and actor who brings Elmo to life, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude toward him and his creation.
In Being Elmo, director Constance Marks traces Clash’s strange and uniquely single-minded journey from watching Sesame Street in his middle-class Baltimore home in 1969 – a revelation that led him to craft his own puppet out of his father’s coat – through TV and charity work in his teens, a mentorship with legend Kermit Love and eventually a gig on his beloved Street, where he was assigned to a red fur ball that had just about been given up on: Elmo.
The craze that followed the unveiling of Clash’s Elmo is certainly covered here, but not in any too-much-too-soon, downward-spiral way that we’ve come to expect from life-story docs. Although I would’ve been interested to see that stuff – talent like Clash’s doesn’t come without darkness – Marks understandably focuses instead on the sheer unlikeliness of her subject. It seems as if Clash has had a camera on him his entire life – even his first meeting with Love was professionally shot – and that’s a good thing because some of the claims made in the doc of Clash’s goodness, his work ethic, his very essence, would be easily scoffed at without the evidence.
I don’t mind a tender tribute to the man who made such a tender impact on the world, and the astounding archival footage is worth a million “dark turning points.” Besides, there’s only so much I want to know about the guy who, at the moment, is singing about wetting the bed.
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