So I’m not a Muppet guy. I know, this is like saying you don’t like ice cream, but it’s true. I can appreciate what the Muppets do for kids and I like The Muppet Movie, but I don’t have that intense connection with the characters and Jim Henson that so many other people do. With that in mind you can imagine my reaction to the whole Elmo craze of a decade ago; the Tickle Me Elmo was like a plague sent from an angry Jehova, as far as I was concerned.
After seeing Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (the second half of that title has got to go) I feel pretty bad about being so cynical about good old Elmo. This documentary, which tells the life story of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash, had me crying, smiling and swelling with inspiration. And feeling a lot more affection for that fuzzy red monster.
Clash’s life story is an incredible one because it shows the importance of three simple things for success: talent, support and drive. Clash was born with a talent for puppetry that he discovered when Sesame Street started being broadcast on his local Baltimore public television station. The support came in the form of his mother and father, who saw Kevin’s talent and fostered it even during the teenage years when a boy walking around with a big home-made puppet on his arm drew some serious attention. And finally Clash had the drive, getting out and performing with his puppets, leaving a school trip to New York City in order to meet Muppet builder Kermit Love, and jumping at every opportunity afforded him.
Being Elmo verges on being a hagiography - Clash’s divorce is mentioned, but mostly elided (although enough information is presented that you can figure out what happened all on your own. It was a case of a marriage crumbling in the face of an overwhelming devotion to work) - but I didn’t mind that because the subject of the film radiates an almost holy aura. It’s possible that Kevin Clash likes to do freaky things in bed or sometimes steals candy from the corner store or lies or drives over the speed limit or commits any one of a number of oh-so-human sins, but it doesn’t matter when compared to the extraordinary work that he does. And the extraordinary warmth that he has for everyone around him. To watch Clash in action - as a man and as a puppeteer - is to see something really special unfolding before your very eyes.
At the start of this review I said that I have never been much of a Muppet guy, and that’s true, but there is something mesmerizing to me about watching the puppeteers work the Muppets. The characters themselves, when presented onscreen, are so seamless that to watch Henson and company stand under them, hands in the puppet’s asses (literally, in the case of Elmo, who has a butt that looks like it should be laying Xenomorph eggs) doesn’t destroy the magic but rather increases it. There are plenty of scenes of Clash walking into a room full of kids with Elmo on his arm and every time the attention goes right to Elmo; I think that’s part of the puppeteer’s skill, to blend away into the background, and also part of the aura that surrounds Clash. His art isn’t about drawing attention to himself but rather attention to others, and there’s holiness in that.
I came to understand what it is about Elmo that made him a sensation; he’s a character with unlimited love and a need for children. Children, who are so needy and dependent upon their parents and guardians, react strongly to the figure that needs them. They feel important, they feel like they’re the center of something, and most of all they feel unconditionally loved. These kids sink into Elmo given a chance, simply awash in love. How is this NOT a religious thing? It’s incredible.
It’s rare that a film can inspire on as many levels as Being Elmo does. Clash himself inspires artistically, showing a path that anybody with talent and drive can follow. He inspires as a person; recalling the way that Kermit Love mentored him as a young man, Clash brings in a ten year old boy who shows a gift for puppeteering (and a spooky knowledge of the Sesame Street puppeteers) and mentors him. And the story of Elmo inspires on a larger, more human level, reminding us that making other people feel better is much more admirable than making other people feel worse. It’s a simple lesson, and one we all instinctively know, but one that is too rarely practiced.
If there’s one thing I wish that Being Elmo had gone into more deeply it’s the fact that Clash was the first black puppeteer working for Jim Henson. Clash’s rise feels admirably color blind - he’s just a great puppeteer - but I can’t help feel that it’s no accident that the 10 year old boy he ends up mentoring is a black kid as well. Elmo obviously has no racial identity, but there’s an additional level of inspiration in the Kevin Clash story - that of racial lines being crossed with strength and dignity.
Being Elmo isn’t much of an expose of the world inside the Children’s Television Workshop or the inside politics of Sesame Street, and it presents a vision of that place as idyllic as you see on TV. But who needs the seamy underside when you can have the uplift of a talented, driven man bringing happiness and love to millions of children? If Being Elmo doesn’t leave your cheeks wet with happy tears and your chest bursting with love, you may need a hug from that red monster yourself.