Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

2011, Constance Marks - Netflix

This was an irresistible documentary for me, even though I'm not a huge fan of Elmo.  The little red monster that's a merchandising juggernaut and, for a time in the late '90's became pretty much the sole focus of the beloved institution Sesame Street, has long annoyed the piss out of me, to be blunt.  Yet, since I've become a parent, and watched how my daughter responds to the first-person-talking, goldfish-loving, Jingle-Bells-riffing Muppet and I've softened my view.  The real attraction, though, was the implied behind-the-scenes look at both what it takes to become a muppeteer and a look inside the Muppet studios.

Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, it might surprise many to learn, is an imposing-in-size-only black man, with a kind smile, an obvious connection with children, and an incredible passion for puppetry.  The film immediately pulls the curtain back on Elmo to reveal Clash as the puppet master, and then dives into how this man coming from extremely humble beginnings became one of the top children's entertainers in history.  The answer is, quite simply, an impressive amount of hard work, devotion to his craft, and a deep love for what he does.  It's not a wildly dramatic story, but it is exemplary of what it takes to be successful.  Clash, starting at quite a young age, got into puppetry, both the art of entertaining and the art of creation.  He got noticed on a local level, honed his talent, grew his exposure to a regional and ultimately national level, before apprenticing with a puppet godfather, and coming into the dream role as a member of the Henson stable.

The story of Elmo and the character's escalation to superstardom is equally drama-less.  Elmo was a monster character that other puppeteers just couldn't make work, gaining no traction on the show.  It's a testament to Clash's vocal abilities and his puppeting skill that he turned Elmo into what he ultimately became, an international superstar.  As the man behind the scenes, he's perhaps the biggest international superstar nobody really knows, and the film shows not only how capable a performer he is, but how revered and preeminent he is.  He trains other puppeteers on the international Sesame Street programs, he's a major executive in the brand and obviously one of the most in-demand Muppet-masters in the world.

The toll of his immeasurable success on his personal life is touched on but brushed by, as it's not dwelt upon but he sacrificed his marriage and much of his daughter's formative years to get to where he is.  There's a rather telling moment, an unexpectedly telling moment I should add, where Clash throws an extravagant 16th birthday for his daughter which is almost embarrassingly Elmo-centric.  His daughter seems good natured about it all, perhaps respectful of what it was that affords her family such extravagances as personalized sweet 16 messages from Jack Black. 

For all Clash's demureness, to see him in a business sense, training the other muppeteers and his executive role on Sesame Street, and the awareness is he's still not that shy reserved boy playing with puppets.  He may prefer to stay behind Elmo and let the puppet get the attention and glory, but he's proud and confident in what he does, and has grown beyond the timidity into someone sucessful, and, in a way less rateable because of it. In all, it's an interesting, yet slight documentary.