Thursday, July 31, 2014

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.  
Celebrity often comes at a price.  There are many actors and musicians that can’t walk down the street without being stopped for an autograph.  Occasionally, you have people whose work doesn’t lend itself to being recognized.  Every knows Elmo, especially if you were around in the 1990s.  Unless you watch Sesame Street, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Kevin Clash is the voice and personality behind Elmo.

Being Elmo shows how he started making puppets at age 10, starting with his father’s coat.  This led to a job at a local TV station working a puppet.  He was eventually hired to be on Captain Kangaroo and another TV program.  After both shows were canceled, he got a job on Labyrinth, working with his idol, Jim Henson.  This led to him working on the show that inspired him in the first place:  Sesame Street.

One day, Elmo’s puppeteer was frustrated with the character.  He handed the puppet to Clash, who played around with the concept.  Clash came to the conclusion that Elmo should be all about love and friendliness.  The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m 38.  I haven’t watched Sesame Street in a long time.  I don’t recall what prompted me to add this to my Netflix queue.  I think I may have seen Clash on The Daily Show with John Stewart.  (Several of the scenes in the documentary look familiar, so I’m pretty sure I saw something on TV.)  I’m one of those people that could probably pass any of the show’s current actors and not recognize them, despite the show being so popular.

It is interesting to watch the movie.  Clash grew up wanting to know how the Muppets were made.  Clash could never figure out how to hide the exterior stitching.  (Henson used felt.)  This is someone who knew what he wanted to do and was fortunate enough to meet the right people.

Clash took on a lot of responsibility, meaning his personal life suffered.  He had to make time to see his daughter.  He even filed for divorce.  Interestingly, Clash was accused of inappropriate relationships with minors.  (This was all after the documentary was made.)  From what I can tell, he was cleared of everything and has since come out as gay.  The Sesame Street web site lists him as the puppeteer for Elmo.  (I’m not sure if Clash will be rejoining the show or if he was never taken off the site.)

This is where Netflix’s streaming service is good.  Most of the movies aren’t great, but ones like this are at least interesting.  You don’t realize what a big production the Muppets is.  Seeing one person go from watching the show to being on it and contributing in such a major way is a good way to spend 90 minutes.  Elmo tends to be a love-him-or-hate-him proposition, though.  Either you’re going to be a huge fan or you’re going to dread the next 90 minutes.  (Don’t worry.  They don’t blast his voice that much.)

I’d be interested to know more about what happened in the intervening years.  Even though I’m not sure what will become of Kevin Clash, I don’t think Elmo’s dead.  I could see this documentary maybe getting a sequel one day.  I have to wonder how differently history would have played, though, had Kevin Clash’s father had gotten mad about the coat. 

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