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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011)

Docurama Films
DVD Released: 4/3/2012

All Ratings out of




Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/25/2012

I'm not here to tell anyone how to make their documentary, but the makers of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey really dropped the ball with the opening of their film. It should have opened with "man on the street"-type interviews in which members of the public were asked if they had any idea that Elmo, that lovable Sesame Street Muppet with the high-pitched voice was brought to life by an African-American man. Despite what my wife say, I think that most people aren't aware of this fact and it's just one of the unique and interesting things which makes puppeteer Kevin Clash's life-story such an unique and fascinating one.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey tells Clash's story, starting with some of his earliest memories. Through interviews with Clash and his family, we learn that he was fascinated by television from a young age. He was especially fond of shows which had puppets and started making his own when he was just a boy. Growing up in Baltimore, Clash began putting on shows for the kids in his mother's daycare and at local parties. He then got a job on a local TV show for children. However, it was Sesame Street which mesmerized Clash and he became determined to be a part of that show. While still in high school, Clash contacted Kermit Love, the man who built the Muppets for Sesame Street. While on a school trip to New York City, Clash was able to meet Love and this eventually led to an audition for Sesame Street. He got the job and worked with several minor characters. Then, one day, a frustrated co-worker handed him the Elmo puppet and asked Clash to see what he could do with it. And the rest is history.

One always hopes that the subject of a documentary is a fascinating one and Kevin Clash and Being Elmo delivers. The Muppets themselves seem so alive that we rarely think about the humans behind them (well, below them to be exact). The movie goes beyond the legendary Jim Henson and Frank Oz to introduce us to some of the other Muppet luminaries who helped to influence and mold Clash's career. We go on-set at Sesame Street to see the Muppeteers at work and get an idea of how they collaborate. The movie also goes beyond Clash's story to give a brief history of Henson's career and how he went from Sesame Street to the worldwide phenomenon that was The Muppet Show (although it fails to mention that Henson had to go to Britain to get The Muppet Show made).

But, this is Clash's story and the movie does a fine job of profiling him. But, more importantly, this is an amazing portrayal of ambition and drive, and serves as a great example someone who followed their dreams. Muppeteering wasn't something which Clash fell into -- it was his goal from childhood and he did whatever he could to make it come true. Rarely do we see a story about someone who was so determined to live their dream. Yes, there were some fortuitous breaks along the way, but for the most part Clash created his own destiny. Even if you have no interest in Elmo or Muppets, this movie is worth seeing due to the fact that it's a great example of someone living the American dream.

As good as the story is, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is flawed as a documentary. To her credit, Director Constance Marks has hit upon a goldmine with a wealth of footage showing a young Clash meeting with Kermit Love which was taken from a local TV special. She also hits emotional marks with interviews of Clash's parents and shots of him at his childhood home. The problems come with the movie's timeline and certain details which are left out. The film's story jumps back and forth between Clash's career and Elmo's rise to fame, but this creates issues. For example, the movie implies that the Tickle Me Elmo toy craze took place before Jim Henson's death, but Henson had been dead for six years when the toy arrived. Also, the 1999 theatrical film The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland was never mentioned. Yes, the movie was a flop and perhaps they couldn't get the rights to the footage, but you would think it would get a peep. The details of Clash's personal life aren't necessarily relevant to the overall story, but they do arise, often without enough background info.

We see Elmo as a silly lovable Muppet who can be both touching and hilarious. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey shows us that a lot of work, over many years, has gone into making Elmo the star that he is today. Kevin Clash may rarely appear on camera, so it's good that we have the opportunity to learn more about him, even if some details were left out.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey offers the best Elmo vs. a wedge of cheese fight ever on DVD courtesy of Docurama Films. The movie has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. Keep in mind that the documentary is comprised of footage taken from many different sources. The primary interview footage shot by Marks is sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look good and Elmo's red fur looks great. The archive footage shows a variety of expected issues, from grain to over-saturation, but these issues aren't linked to the quality of this transfer. The DVD offers a Dolby 2.0 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Being a documentary, the most important thing is that we can understand what everyone is saying and this track does a fine job with that. Also any music comes through very clearly.

The Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey DVD contains a few extras. "Sundance Premiere Q&A with Kevin and the Filmmakers" (8 minutes) shows Clash and others taking questions from the audience at a screening. There are some good questions here, but it can be difficult to hear those asking the questions at the time. Of course, the piece picks up when Clash brings Elmo out. Various members of the creative team talk about their view of the project and reveal some interesting tidbits from the production in "Some Thoughts from the Filmmakers" (14 minutes). "Tau Performs in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" (4 minutes) shows a special day for a young protege of Clash. "Interview with John Tartaglia" (6 minutes) who is with the Broadway show "Avenue Q". The extras are rounded out by a TRAILER for the film and a text bio of Producer/Director Constance Marks.

Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long