Saturday, April 30, 2011
HOT DOCS 2011: Being Elmo
By Alan Bacchus
Anyone looking for a salacious and dramatic unveiling of the drama behind the magic of children's puppetry won't find it here. Elmo creator Kevin Clash is not a psychotic introvert with bi-polar syndrome. He doesn't convert his inner angst into the good deeds of his famous red muppet. The inspiration and motivation for Elmo is love, a desire to create a puppet that brings genuine feelings of love and happiness to children. My year-and-a-half-old son loves him unconditionally, and so his success in achieving this is remarkable.
Cinematic theories of storytelling would say that conflict-free stories don't make for good films. Being Elmo is certainly an exception; it's a character study of a very successful, talented and humble man, which leaves the glossy world of Henson puppetry entirely intact and scuff-free.
Director Constance Marks, with help from narrator Whoopi Goldberg, goes back and charts the rise of Kevin Clash, a black man, who, from a somewhat underprivileged household in Baltimore, MD, turned an innate passion for the art of puppetry into one of the most successful children's characters of all time.
Most biographical documentaries of celebrities or artists chronicle the ups and downs of one's career, the struggle to break in, creative challenges and conflicts along the way, and the overall effect of success and celebrity on one's regular life. The most fascinating aspect of this story is the relative ease with which Clash seemingly became successful.
His very first puppet looked like a stroke of genius. Not even his parents understood how an eight-year-old could sew together a puppet with such detail and inspiration as Clash did. From here, it's one success after another. Before he was even out of high school, he had his own locally produced and broadcast TV show. In his early 20s, he was working for his idol Jim Henson on Labyrinth and eventually, Sesame Street. Even the Tickle Me Elmo craze was accidental and not part of Clash's personal ambitions.
There aren't many warts to share in Clash's life. The only negative part of Kevin's journey is his absence in his daughter's childhood. Clash admits during the heyday of Tickle-Me Elmo mania that he put the jet setting publicity lifestyle ahead of his daughter. The elephant in the room that is never addressed is the break up of his marriage. Clash references the mother of his daughter, as his "ex-wife," only once, but curiously never returns to the subject. Other than his childhood and his guilt about his daughter, Being Elmo is devoid of personal details, concentrating only on the fluffy puppets and dream world of Jim Henson.
But this is no puff piece. Strong themes of talent, ambition, mentorship and righteous decency instilled by Jim Henson's legacy run through every experience of Clash's. Being Elmo, which is wholly entertaining and inspiring, provides us with the same genuine warm fuzzies and good feelings we would get from a hug from Elmo, which makes the film just about everything we want it to be.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca