Being elmo

The Muppets of Sesame Street were each specifically designed to embody a different teachable issue: Bert and Ernie show how friendship can endure despite differences; Oscar the Grouch teaches children how to react when someone shows positive and negative emotions; and Big Bird represents curiosity about an adult world that one is not quite able to understand yet.

Fashions changed, the curriculum evolved, and a few humans came and went, but other than that Sesame Street has otherwise remained largely the same show as it was when it debuted in 1969, until the arrival of puppeteer Kevin Clash and the attendant ascendency of Elmo in the 1980s and 1990s.

Photo: Elmo and Kevin Clash in BEING ELMO, a Submarine Deluxe release. Photo courtesy of Scott McDermott.

The reason for Elmo’s phenomenal success was simple: Elmo embodies indiscriminate, fullhearted love. As narrator Whoopi Goldberg points out in Constance Mark’s new documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Elmo needs people, and that’s why they love him in return. His popularity has risen to the point where he has become the star of the programme, despite his inauspicious beginnings as a caveman-like Muppet that no-one could figure out how to perform successfully.

Photo: Kevin Clash and Elmo in BEING ELMO, a Submarine Deluxe release. Photo courtesy of Submarine Deluxe.

Being Elmo examines the popularity of Elmo as a character, but its main focus is squarely on Elmo’s performer, Kevin Clash, and his journey from being a child enchanted by Sesame Street to becoming the show’s “Muppet Captain”. Indeed, if Being Elmo has a problem at all it’s that the journey of the title is relatively straightforward: Kevin grew up in a poor but supportive family, was teased a little for his passion but people largely understood that he was special, and he worked solidly as a puppeteer from high school through to the point that he finally realised his dream of joining Sesame Street and then his breakthrough moment when he created the modern version of Elmo.

It’s certainly inspirational to see Kevin’s journey, and it would be almost impossible to come away from the film without developing admiration and respect for him, but there’s not much else to it: Kevin wants to become a puppeteer, and due to his talent and dedication is able to do so. That’s the entire narrative.

Kevin is an undoubtedly talented, hard-working, soulful person, but there are other layers to him that Being Elmo doesn’t fully engage with. There’s a more interesting, slightly underexplored thread about how he began to miss out on his daughter’s upbringing due to his commitment to performing Elmo for other children, but it’s largely brushed over in favour of footage of Kevin teaching new puppeteers and cheering up terminally ill children (both of which are compelling and inspiring, of course).

Photo: Kevin Clash (1975) from BEING ELMO, a Submarine Deluxe release. Photo courtesy of Kevin Clash.

The most memorable scene of the documentary is his daughter’s 16th birthday party: Kevin watches his daughter watch a video he made for her filled with birthday wishes from her favourite celebrities. At the end of the video is a message from Elmo, telling her that Elmo loves her. Kevin cries as the Muppet says the things that he couldn’t say in person. The love that Elmo expresses so freely – the quality has made him so popular – is love that Kevin himself can only properly express through a puppet. It’s a deeply sad moment, and one that says more about the documentary’s subject than any number adulatory talking heads ever could.

Photo: Kevin Clash training a French Puppeteer with the puppet “Griotte” in BEING ELMO, a Submarine Deluxe release. Photo courtesy of Submarine Deluxe.

Marks, whose husband James Miller (the film’s cinematographer) worked on Sesame Street for several years before making the film, clearly came to Being Elmo wanting to celebrate Kevin Clash and his life, and the film does this so successfully that it’s hard to begrudge her for that. Despite its unrealised potential to go a little deeper into Kevin’s mindset, it would be churlish to hold that against what is a charming and lovely documentary about a charming and lovely man: for anyone who not only adores Muppets but also what they represent – joyfulness and community – Being Elmo is a treat.