Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sundance ’11: Being Elmo a Puppeteer’s Journey

Sesame Street can essentially be divided into two eras: before and after Elmo. Actually, the red Muppet had been around for a while, but had always suffered something of an identity crisis until puppeteer Kevin Clash took him over. Reconceived as the sweetest of sweethearts, Elmo loved everyone and the love came right back at him, as Constance Marks documents in her profile of Clash and his furry alter-ego, Being Elmo: a Puppeteer’s Journey (clip here), which was one of the hottest tickets at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Growing up as a budding puppeteer in his lower middle class Baltimore neighborhood was not always easy for Clash. However two important people recognized and encouraged his talents: his parents. Thanks to his mother’s cold call, an important figure came to share that faith in Clash—Kermit Love, the guru-designer of Henson’s Muppet studio. With love’s encouragement, Clash would be working professionally on national television soon after graduating from high school. Yet, for years, the timing just did not work out for him to join the Henson Company.

Eventually, the stars aligned. His early days with Henson were pleasant if mostly unremarkable, but an off-hand assignment to figure out something to do with the show’s red-headed stepchild proved to be a turning point. Previously rather monosyllabic and not particularly gracious, Clash’s Elmo was now outgoing, eager to express his affection for the world. Suddenly, Elmo was no longer an obscure supporting Muppet, but the marquee star of Sesame Street.

Journey is part Horatio Alger story, chronicling Clash’s rise to the pinnacle of his profession. Throughout the film, he frequently acknowledges all those who mentored him along the way, including not just Henson and Love, but also his colleagues from the local Baltimore affiliate where he first cut his teeth in children’s programming.

There is also a whole lot of Elmo in Journey as well. Yes, he is the touchy-feeliest of the Muppets, but he is also the most frequently requested by Make-a-Wish kids. Viewers who do not get a little misty-eyed during those scenes need to get their souls tuned-up.

Indeed, Journey is quite an antidote for cynicism. Wisely, Marks takes a conventional approach to her subjects, relying on the charm of Clash and Elmo. Featuring a whole lot of feel good material, like Clash’s American success story, the strength that comes from family, the value of friendship, and the continuing legacy of Henson’s creative genius, Journey is a crowd pleaser for audiences of all ages. A hit at Sundance, it should have a long life after the festival, which concludes this Sunday (1/30) in Park City.