Thursday, 26 January 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

There has been two constants in my life ever since childhood and both whose influence I owe a lot to as a writer. One being the works of Walt Disney and the other being the works of Jim Henson. In this review we'll be concentrating on the latter as the title of this documentary suggests. More often than not documentaries are used as a way of delivering hit hitting messages (Project Nemo) or as a way to raise awareness of essential global issues (An Inconvenient Truth). Rarely, in recent times, has the documentary genre been used in the powerfully positive manner seen in Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey.

Narrated by one Whoopi Goldberg, the documentary follows puppeteer Kevin Clash, the man most famous for voicing the iconic children's phenomenon Elmo in the wonderful Jim Henson creation, Sesame Street. It charts his tentative beginnings of creating his own puppets from an early age, to getting spots performing on local television stations to eventually meeting the great Kermit Love and Jim Henson which set him on his way to global stardom.

Kevin Clash himself comes across as a truly likeable and sincere person. A man who devoted his life to his passion and through a combination of hard work and pure luck eventually paid off in the highest of rewards. Even in his early years, towards the end of his senior year of high school he was the one tipped to be a millionaire in the school's yearbook. Though his years working on local television and Captain Kangaroo were compelling, the documentary really hits its heights from the moment he meets legendary Henson collaborator, Kermit Love.

Clash's relationship with Love is almost like seeing a granddad take his grandson into his shed and show him the wild inventions he creates in his spare time. The chance encounter Clash gets by simply his mum phoning Love up and asking if his son can drop by and see the workshop is so baffling it makes one think, 'it can't be that simple? Can it?" Actually to be fair it probably can. From here we get to see Clash perform puppeteer duties on The Muppet Movie, to turning down duties in Henson's first non Muppet film The Dark Crystal to eventually getting another chance in the brilliant and equally terrifying film starring David Bowie, Labyrinth.

The interesting thing about Clash taking on the role of Elmo was that he wasn't the original puppeteer for the puppet. The characterisation of Elmo pre Clash was a husky Neanderthal-like creature which veterans of Jim Henson's workshop such as Richard Hunt and Carroll Spinney were on the verge of throwing in the bin. In a bid to do something a bit different and really make his mark on Seseme Street after a few lukewarm additions to the cast, Clash took Elmo away and one a heartfelt journey of self discovery he turned Elmo into an entirely different entity altogether and the one we're all familiar with today.

He seemed to do something that no one had thought to do on Sesame Street previously, but give the cast a character who has the same wide eyed innocence of a child. He gave it a soul. Someone who children could communicate with the other characters through. A character who any child would want as a best friend. It's only watching this you realise what sort of cultural impact that did on mine and the next couple of generations of children. From Sesame Street came the iconic Tickle Me Elmo teddy bear, the countless appearances on mainstream talk shows, the endless A-List celebrities doing scenes with Elmo on Sesame Street. You only need to go on youtube to see how this is felt even in 2012.

The impact of Elmo particularly felt in one potently emotional moment where Cash gets a request from a sick little girl to meet Clash and his puppet through the wonderful Make A Wish Foundation. Most children won't care who George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo Dicaprio, Clint Eastwood or Brad Pitt is. However you stick Elmo or the vast array of Jim Henson's creations in a room, and it'll blow their minds. Clash is a superstar, yet if he walked past you on a street in the cold light of day you (much like myself) probably wouldn't give it a second thought.

Final Thoughts
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is a heartfelt and inspirational documentary. A salute to the creative types who dare to be different, dare to be ambitious, dare to dream big regardless of how silly their goals may seem. Though Clash and Elmo take top billing the film also serves as a beautiful tribute to the lasting legacy of Jim Henson himself. You'll laugh, you'll possibly even cry but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to keep smiling through this wonderfully charming documentary from beginning to end.


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey isn't set for release in the UK at this moment in time.

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