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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

April 6, 2012

I’ve currently been on Spring Break from my job which has resulted in lounging around in my pjs watching massive amounts of Netflix, usually with a beer in one hand and the other hand resting comfortably in an Al Bundy stance. It’s been marvelous. Upon my many ventures on Netflix including childhood favorite Rocko’s Modern Life and David Lynch’s weirdly interesting Twin Peaks, my instant queue has seen the addition of an array of horror films and documentaries. Among the documentaries that piqued my interest was the Constance Marks film Being Elmo, a film that word of mouth led me to watch on a whim. After watching Being Elmo, I feel I have a new purpose in life, like I can achieve anything if I just put my mind to it. Being Elmo bought me out of my lazy funk I’ve found myself in lately and has pushed me to work harder than ever before to achieve my dreams. We’ll see how long that motivation lasts though.

The little fiery red ball of adorable energy better known as Elmo has been a staple on the legendary children’s program Sesame Street for decades now, however, his popularity saw rise when a young African-American puppeteer named Kevin Clash gave Elmo a spiritual rebirth. With a high falsetto voice, a desire to show his peers they are loved, and a knack for addressing himself in the third person, Elmo quickly became adored by children and adults alike. Remember the Tickle Me Elmo craze of 1996 when parents across the world lost their common sense and bum rushed stores, fighting off their peers just to obtain a doll that laughed hysterically when “tickled?” The high demand of a Tickle Me Elmo resulted in prices skyrocketing for the doll with some buyers paying as much as thousands of dollars to obtain one. It’s been 16 years since the fad of Tickle Me Elmo yet Elmo’s popularity is tenfold as he and his cute infectious laugh seem to be more popular than ever. But what about the man behind the phenomena? How has Clash dealt with the fame and demands of carry Elmo on his hand?

Being Elmo slightly covers that. It’s not the type of documentary that focuses on the drama within Clash’s life, like how missed most of his only child’s most precious years due to the demand for Elmo all over the world, or how his puppeteering may have affected his marriage. The film only slightly grazes these topics. Instead it focuses more on Clash’s journey as a puppeteer and as a man. It tells the story of the how the introverted quiet kid from Baltimore was fascinated by the world created in morning cartoons and kids shows like Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo. It follows Clash’s humble beginnings making amateur puppets from his father’s fur coat at home to becoming a regular puppeteer for a local television station and going on to gain recognition and prominence at the mere age of 18. The films shows how Clash’s hard work and passion for puppeteering opened the door for bigger opportunities like a chance encounter meeting and working for his idol Jim Henson, becoming the protégé of Henson’s right hand man Kermit Love, an living his childhood dream of working on Sesame Street.

Providing authentic vintage footage and pictures of Clash in his youth, Being Elmo gives a bird’s eye view into Clash’s meetings with Love and Henson as well as Clash’s puppeting work around his community.  Being Elmo automatically engulfs viewers early on in the film. It provides great interviews from Clash and his parents as well as insight from his co-workers and friends. Being Elmo does an interesting job of focusing on Clash as person apart from his puppet ego but also at times reminds viewers how easy it may be forget that Elmo is only a puppet. By focusing on only the image of Elmo from the abdomen up, I often fell into the mindset that Elmo was a real being. It’s almost a shock in scenes when Elmo is taken off of Clash’s hand, it’s like watching a light go out and it forced me to remember that Elmo is nothing more than stitched material and plastic eyes with a hand shoved up his backside. Being Elmo not only allows viewers to understand what it is about Elmo that’s so magnetizing but it also delivers an uplifting message that through hard work and fate dreams can do come true. It may be a clichéd notion but the reality is enforced through Clash’s journey in Being Elmo.

SEE IT. Add it to your Netflix queue as soon as possible.

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