Thursday, April 28, 2011

Movie Review: Being Elmo

The Independent Film Festival of Boston got off to an amazingly strong start tonight with the documentary Being Elmo.

I was the first generation to grow up on Sesame Street and loved The Muppet Show but Elmo was a little past my time, so I had some trepidations about a documentary about the voice of Elmo. I thought I knew the story because of the universality of the muppets but the film is a biography of a person and a presentation of a profession I don't know much about.

Kevin Clash was born in Baltimore and was fascinated with puppets he saw on television. He started making them and his parents indulged him because he was so interested in it even though other kids, including his sister, teased him about it. He put on local puppet shows and got a job on local television (which put an end to the teasing). His mother called muppet designer Kermit Love who was gracious enough to arrange a visit to the muppet workshop. Miraculously the film has footage of this meeting and I was just as enthralled as Kevin. Clash worked on famous kids shows Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster. Through Kermit Love he played cookie monster in a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and afterwards met his idol Jim Henson which led to a role in Labyrinth. That led to working on Sesame Street. Elmo was a puppet who had made several appearances but no one could find the right voice for him. Clash was given a chance and Elmo was born. Then the fame hit with the Tickle Me Elmo craze and tons of appearances all over the world.

Throughout the film you get details of the craft of puppetry. As a teenage puppeteer Clash was obsessed with finding out how they made the muppets without any seams. Love tells him about the Henson Stitch and the wonders of fleece. We see puppeteers try different voices on puppets to find the right personality. Later in the film Clash trains puppeteers for a french version of Sesame Street and you see him detail the hand gestures that go into the performance.

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I wondered about Clash making live appearances with children and if it breaks the illusion, but as he said in the Q&A, kids don't see him, they just see Elmo and I found myself doing the same thing. It demonstrates the strength of the performer. This isn't ventriloquism, he's standing right there, moving his mouth and doesn't interact with Elmo much. When Elmo talks Kevin disappears and when Kevin talks he hides Elmo's face hides in his chest. There's a bit of Magician's deception involved and this is different from a TV or movie where you don't see Kevin at all.

Being Elmo is remarkable. While there are no big set backs in Kevin's life (at least none shown) you see a kid work on his dreams, with the encouragement of family and mentors and achieve huge success. He also gives back in making countless appearances, mentoring others and making the world a happier place. It's got the right balance of story elements and enough of the craft to make it interesting but not too much to destroy the magic. It does pull easy emotional strings when the Make-A-Wish Foundation visits Sesame Street and when Jim Henson dies, but the muppets are kids dreams and of all celebrity deaths I think Henson's affected me most. As far as making children happy, Henson was the biggest star next to Walt Disney. And as with Disney it's thriving even after he's gone because of the work of people like Kevin Clash.

There was a Q&A with the filmmakers after the showing and Kevin and Elmo were there. It was the longest Q&A in IFFBoston history. He started by meeting any children in the audience.

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They then took questions from the adults, some to the director, some to Kevin and some to Elmo. Kevin also played Splinter in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Baby Sinclair on the 1991 show Dinosaurs ("Not the mama").

Someone asked what Kevin would like to do next in his career. He wants to stay with Elmo and do more (though he misses making puppets). He's pretty high up at Sesame Street, directing and co-producing the show. Even Elmo wants to direct. Here's some video I shot of the Q&A:

Here are the directors of the IFF Boston. Thanks for running a great festival.

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1 comment:

Megs said...

Fantastic summary!

When I saw "Avenue Q" on stage I worried the same way about puppets / people, but after about 5 minutes I was completely focused on the puppets, the same as you described.

And I 100% agree with you regarding Henson's death. Just thinking about it makes me so sad, a bit angry, and with a heavy heart. What a great man.