Sundance 2011: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey


“one of the most sincere portraits of a creative genius…”

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)

Directed by Constance Marks

2011, USA

To children of all ages around the world, Elmo is an international icon and a household name. The puppet who characteristically avoids pronouns, referring to himself in the third person and known as the “Little Red Menace” by Sesame Street traditionalists, has found fame in regular mainstream television and movies. He’s become a regular guest on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, appeared on Martha Stewart Living and Martha, The Tony Danza Show, and was even on a special episode of Oprah called The Faces Behind The Famous Names. He starred in the theatrically-released motion pictures Elmo in Grouchland, Elmo Saves Christmas and appeared in a fifth-season episode of The West Wing. He is so well known that Elmo is the only non-human or puppet ever to testify before the U.S. Congress. But despite his fame, few people know of Elmo’s creator.

Well Constance Mark‘s Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is here to change that, providing an in depth behind the scenes look at Kevin Clash, the man behind one of the most loved and adored children’s characters. It only took six years, but veteran doc filmmaker Marks was able to expertly weave together the strands of Clash’s career, combining archival footage and compelling interviews with the performer and his many admirers including Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell, Cheryl Henson and Joan Ganz Cooney. Whoopi Goldberg narrates providing incisive information overlapping the behind-the-scenes look at Sesame Street and the Jim Henson Workshop.

This is the story of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who while growing up in 1970’s Baltimore watching Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street, dreamed of working with his idol, master puppeteer Jim Henson. Backed by the love and support of his friends and family, Kevin pursued his dream, worked hard at his craft, and at age 17, he became a local Baltimore celebrity by staging puppet shows. Its the story of a kid who dreamed big, and when word got out, Clash received an invite to the Muppet Studios from Jim Henson himself, and the dream became real.

Elmo might be a by-the-numbers biopic, it doesn’t have much in the way of conflict, nor is it even a visually consistent movie (the interviews with Clash vary in presentation), but the film excels at what it sets out to do: it provides a great narrative of a man who pursued his life-long dream while presenting a fascinating look inside the world of puppetry. Marks takes a candid approach in detailing the origin of Kevin’s creatively and unique passion for puppetry. Combining a mixture of incredible archival footage and clips illustrating the arc of Clash’s career, the director wonderfully documents the man’s life from as far back as age 10, when he designed and constructed his own characters in his parents home.

Being Elmo is a rare documentary that will delight viewers of all ages and cultures world wide for years to come. The winner of the “Special Jury Prize: Documentary” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Being Elmo is one of the most sincere portraits of a creative genius who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Running just 76 minutes, Being Elmo has the potential to reach a loyal, built-in family audience in theatrical release, and deserves to.

Jason Elsbury

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