September 15, 2011

MOVIES: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (Constance Marks, 2011)

When you're making a movie about a successful artist, you have to decide how much time to spend on their professional life and how much on their personal life. The subtitle of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey makes it quite clear that we'll be focusing on Kevin Clash's professional life, and therein lies the problem. Because the professional life of Kevin Clash, who is the puppeteer behind Sesame Street's Elmo, has been remarkably uninteresting and nondramatic; it's been an unbroken series of successes and steps up the professional ladder.

Clash began building his own puppets and doing neighborhood puppet shows as a teenager; before he was out of high school, he was working on local television in Baltimore. From there, he went to the last few years of Captain Kangaroo; when that show ended, he went to work for Jim Henson, first on the movie Labyrinth and then at Sesame Street. He worked there for a few years doing minor characters, then took over Elmo, a character that one of his colleagues hadn't had any success with. Elmo caught on, and Clash became a superstar puppeteer.

The movie tells that story in reasonably entertaining fashion, but it's just not a very interesting story. And what's frustrating is that when we do get glimpses into Clash's personal life, there seems to be a compelling story waiting to be told. The most sustained storyline is about Clash's fear that he's neglecting his daughter, who is still quite young when the Elmo phenomenon really explodes.

But there's a single reference to an ex-wife that suggests it wasn't only Clash's daughter who felt neglected. And the scenes of Clash's parents made me wonder what it was like growing up in a mixed-race family in a black suburb in the 60s and 70s.

Several times in the movie, we hear the not terribly surprising observation that every successful puppet character contains within it a lot of the puppeteer's own personality. And one of Clash's colleagues suggests that the key to Elmo's success isn't merely the obvious -- that Elmo loves you (though that's certainly true); the real reason kids love Elmo is that Elmo needs you. Somewhere at the meeting of those two ideas is the making of a fascinating profile. Unfortunately, Being Elmo is less interested in that story than it is in hagiography.

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