DVD Review - Being Elmo

I watched this documentary on Netflix Watch Instantly. It's the story of Kevin Clash, the Emmy-winning puppeteer and producer of Sesame Street. We follow him as a young African-American from the depths of Chocolate City in Baltimore to the heights of the Jim Henson Workshop in New York. Clash of course is famously known as the puppeteer for Elmo, a children's character  that is described as Brad Pitt to a kid. It makes Clash the biggest celebrity to children that they mostly don't know.

As a puppeteer on television, the idea is that the puppeteer is invisible. You can see Kermit the Frog but not Jim Henson who was Kermit's original puppeteer. It's almost a purer form of acting. All actors want to create characters and disappear into them. Most use makeup or costumes, but often they'll be on camera and unable to vanish completely. This documentary in effect pulls back the invisibility cloak and show you his process by which he disappears into his puppets.

What this movie shows is a young boy who has this gift of puppetry and his pursuit of his dream to nurture that gift. It's actually less of a gift and more of a skill, a skill he mostly developed himself. As a young man, a teenager still, Clash put on his own shows by himself for free at children's hospitals and schools. He learned to use a sewing machine, perhaps taught by his mom and he made his own cloth puppets. He used cloth that he shouldn't have from his parents' closet. Out of him though came voices and imaginative ideas that purveyed his perpetual sense of joy and wonder. It's most likely a result of him working in hospitals and schools for handicapped children, but he knew that he had to convey that joy and wonder because his role was to make those children feel better.

This role or function is one that seems to be his life-long purpose. Aside from being a funny or amusing entertainer or even assisting in youth learning and education, as is the mission statement of Sesame Street and PBS, Clash simply wants to make children feel better or more accurately to make children feel loved. Produced and directed by Constance Marks and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, this documentary nicely reveals this about Clash.

Something else is also revealed. After Elmo becomes an international star, Clash's life is consumed. His dedication rises to match, and much like many men who work in this or a related industry, his dedication is a bit of a detriment to his family, specifically his daughter. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, rock star and American Idol-host Steven Tyler revealed the same. What is ironic is that despite his job being to nurture kids, he was less than so for his own kid.

It's an ironic situation that's briefly discussed but never truly explored. The movie is mostly about sharing Clash's love of puppetry and the people whom he idolized and whom helped him get where he is today. That's one takeaway here is that in many scenes we see Clash working alone, just him and the puppet on his arm, but it's contrasted by the fact that if it wasn't for the total and overwhelming support from his parents, his boss at WMAR in Baltimore, and famous puppeteer Kermit Love, Clash would not be telling this story.

Four out of Five.
Rated PG for mild language and brief drug reference.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 16 mins.


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