out of Five
Running time: 80
Constance Marks' portrait of the man behind Sesame Street's furry red Muppet Elmo is entertaining, moving, inspirational and full of fascinating detail but it's hard to shake the feeling that there's a more interesting story beneath the surface.
What's it all about?
Directed by Constance Marks, Being Elmo is a documentary about Kevin Clash, the Baltimore-born African American creator of Sesame Street's furry red Muppet Elmo. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and using a combination of interviews and some surprising archive footage, the film traces Clash's life and career, beginning with his viewing of the first episode of Sesame Street in 1969, which ignited his lifelong love of the Muppets and a fascination with the mechanics of puppetry.
After making his own puppets (rather wonderfully, his parents are delighted rather than upset when he makes his first puppet by cutting up his father's coat) and entertaining neighbourhood children, Clash became a local TV celebrity, which led to him meeting and being mentored by legendary puppet builder Kermit Love (no, really, that's his name). Love, in turn, introduced Clash to Henson and Clash subsequently joined Sesame Street and became the Muppets' only African American puppeteer, striking a chord with children the world over with the creation of baby-voiced hug dispenser Elmo.
Clash is an immensely likeable subject and it's fascinating to see Elmo come to life on his arm, almost as if he's channelling his own inner child. It's also deeply moving to watch Clash working with the Make-A-Wish Foundation (a sort of Jim'll Fix It for terminally ill children) and genuinely inspirational to see him mentoring young would-be puppeteers, passing on the joy and knowledge imparted to him by Love and Henson.
The film is also packed with fascinating behind-the-scenes detail, such as the secret of the “Henson stitch” that makes the Muppets look literally seamless (Clash's joy when he discovers this is one of many highlights) or the revelation that Frank Oz envisioned Miss Piggy's personality as a transgendered truck driver.
The main problem with the film is that it's impossible to shake the feeling that there's an equally interesting, albeit significantly darker story beneath the surface, specifically the toll that “being Elmo” has taken on Clash's family and relationships. Clash is separated from his wife (though they have a child together) and there's a tantalising home movie clip, shot by Clash, of everyone getting ready to go out and Clash getting on everyone's nerves by both constantly filming them and speaking in Elmo's (let's face it, irritating) baby-voice. It's easy to see why they split up but there's a frustrating lack of discussion of how they even met and married in the first place, let alone why the marriage ended.
In short, Being Elmo is fascinating, moving and inspirational but in choosing to opt for straight-up celebration of Clash it misses the opportunity for a more fully rounded, emotionally complex story.