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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

By Ben Nicholson • July 2nd, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Dogwoof Digital

Release date: April 27th, 2012
Certificate (UK): PG
Running time: 80 minutes

Directors: Constance Marks Writers: Philip Shane, Justin Weinstein

Cast: Kevin Clash, Frank Oz, Elmo

Being Elmo

I, like with so many other children, have a special place in my heart for the creations of Jim Henson. I remember having a well worn video tape as a kid with an episode of The Muppet Show alongside my favourite Postman Pat outing and although I didn’t see Dark Crystal until relatively recently, I grew up with a great love of the his 1986 fantasy film, Labyrinth, which saw a young Jennifer Connelly in the lead and David Bowie as the Goblin King.

Alongside those was a show using Henson’s Muppet characters that has run for over 4,000 episodes since it debuted in 1969. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t at some point watched Sesame Street and it’s something that many people, myself included, think back on very fondly helping with their early pre-school education. Many of us learned to count with Count von Count, or learned the alphabet with the likes of Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and, of course, Elmo.

Elmo was not a puppet that easily found a home on the show. For over a decade renowned puppeteers including those who played Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird and Beaker attempted to bring this little red monster to life but nobody could seem to find a voice for it. Then, one day, Richard Hunt (the voice of Scooter amongst others) tossed him into the lap of the young newcomer Kevin Clash and the Elmo we all know and love was born.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey tells us the story of Baltimore born Clash who wanted to be a puppeteer from the age of 8. He was hooked on Sesame Street, in love with a show that created a world he could relate to, unlike other things on television. Famed for the mixed ethnicity of its inhabitants – as well as including Muppets – the show spoke to Clash and despite ridicule at school, he never gave up on his dream and one day it came true.

Being Elmo

Since that day in 1984 when Clash first gave Elmo’s voice a whirl, the character has become an absolute sensation and children all across the world find the cute 3-year-old Muppet to be their favourite. When the show has sick children come onto the show, says Clash, often the one wish they have is to meet Elmo. One such scene is shown in the movie and as the little girl gives Elmo a kiss it’s hard not to feel a little fuzzy.

What makes Elmo so special for many children is explained by Clash at one point. He says that Frank Oz once told him that you need a hook for each character. For him Fozzie Bear was a Vaudeville Comedian and Miss Piggy a truck driver who wanted to be a woman. When Clash finally came to his, it’s a wonderfully simple explanation of why so many children have such affection for the little character. “Elmo loves you,” says another puppeteer, “he just loves you, and when he says it, you just get it.”

Elmo’s not just a character that children love, but he loves them too and that was Clash’s hook.

However, that’s not the only reason Elmo is so popular, it’s also due to the ability of his performer. Kevin Clash is seen as essentially one of the best puppeteers around and in watching Elmo’s movements and behaviour, we can see why. The film shows Being Elmohim spending time in France to teach the performers of the Gallic Rue Sésame how to really bring the characters to life.

We’re introduced to some of the secrets that Jim Henson passed down, like the Muppets’ contemplative nodding which shows them engaged and interested. We hear tricks of the trade like using felt, and the special Henson-stitch to hide the seams. We also hear that Clash never thought the Tickle Me Elmo doll would sell; “This is not going to work, ‘Tickle Me?’ It should be Tickle Elmo.”

The documentary shows us through the young puppeteer’s early career working on Captain Kangaroo and then on Labyrinth as well as where he is now, having become executive producer on Sesame Street.

Admittedly, like it’s subject’s famous character, the film is very sweet natured and although there are allusions to other interesting aspects, it doesn’t really look to tackle them: despite the multi-cultural nature of Sesame Street Clash was the first black puppeteer that Henson had and Clash’s devotion to his vocation has meant that he’s not being around for his own daughter growing up.

It might’ve been nice to get some insight into these things, but having said that it’s not the film’s main goal. The film is about celebrating the determination and wonderful talent of Kevin Clash and the adorable character he created. Elmo has brought joy and happiness to so many children and for that you cannot commend the man behind/below/inside him highly enough and his laugh. Elmo’s little chuckle, still gets me even now.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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