Criticisms and nitpicks crumble at the feet of a documentary like Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, a flawed documentary that has, at its center, the most unquestionably likable protagonist this side of Marge Gunderson. His name is Kevin Clash, and he is the fiftysomething Sesame Street performer who operates and voices the character of Elmo. Kevin started building puppets in his home as a child; he idolized Jim Henson and never missed a Sesame Street or Muppet Show. Those shows and those creatures brought him joy, and now he brings that joy to others. "When a puppet is true and good and meaningful," Frank Oz explains, "it's the soul of the puppeteer that you're seeing." Clash is all soul, it seems, all heart, and that's the kind of thing you can't fake--which is why we buy Elmo's sweetness and love.
This bio-documentary is a nice, even mixture of background and behind-the-scenes, equal parts the story of Kevin's rise through the puppet world (with the help of some terrific archival footage) and peeks behind the curtain--or, more accurately, below the proscenium. The scenes of Clash training young puppeteers are fascinating; yes, now that you mention it, it does seem that Muppets always have their mouths open, because an open Muppet mouth looks like a smile. It's a kick to watch these performers at work; it's even more fun to get a glimpse at the Muppet workshop, drawers filled with eyes and hair and teeth. And the Elmo origin story is intriguing: Clash's is the second incarnation of the character, the first (as seen on old tapes) a less distinctive version with an odd, almost caveman-style voice.
The reason Elmo worked in Kevin's hands was simple--according to a fellow performer, the character tapped into the "pure innocence part of Kevin." Elmo was the accumulation of Clash's life and experiences, and that is the principle strength of director Constance Marks's work: we better understand the work because we better understand the man. His idolization of Henson also provides a dramatic arc for the film to follow; his recollections of their first meetings and initial transactions are still charged with the power of meeting a hero, and though it wrecks havoc with the chronology, the filmmakers are wise to use Henson's passing as the film's emotional climax.
There is one major issue: the narration. It pops up, unexpectedly, at the five minute mark, and occurs irregularly throughout, clearly being used in the worst possible way--to spackle over holes left in the interviews. That's not why it's so problematic, though; put simply, the writing is appalling, obvious and cliché-ridden, and it is read by narrator Whoopi Goldberg with the over-inflection and condescension of a library story hour. Hey, Whoop--just because it's a movie about someone on Sesame Street doesn't mean it has to be narrated as though you're on Sesame Street. The unfortunate narration is, in the grand scheme of the picture, not a huge deal, but it stops the film cold every time it pops up, and puts a drag on an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Video & Audio:
Docurama's anamorphic widescreen presentation is about as good as can be expected for the material, which is mostly comprised of old archival film and new interviews and footage shot on standard-def video. It's a little bit ugly, but it seems that the movie is as well; it's not much of a concern. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track fares somewhat better--there's not much in the way of separation, but the mix is decent, and interview audio is clean.
The bonus section begins with excerpts from the Sundance Premiere Q&A (8:24) with Kevin Clash and the filmmakers. It's a charming and enjoyable extra--particularly when Clash puts on the Elmo puppet to hug a pregnant woman at the show. "Some Thoughts from the Filmmakers" (13:44) is mostly comprised of interview segments with producer/cinematographer James Miller, producer Corinne LaPook, editor/writer Justin Weinstein, co-director/editor/writer Philip Shane, and director/producer Constance Marks on the origination and production of the project, though snippets of a few deleted scenes and extended interviews are also included. It's interesting, though one wishes a section of the full deleted scenes had also been included. One that does make the disc, though, spotlights Clash's young protégé, as "Tau Performs in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" (4:07), much as Clash himself did so many years ago. Also included is an Interview with John Tartaglia (6:24), the Tony award nominee for Avenue Q who is Clash's biggest fan, and whose experiences somewhat mirrored those of the film's subject.
The original Theatrical Trailer (2:26) is also included, as are text Bios of the filmmakers, a text screen About Docurama Films, and four more Docurama Trailers.
The slenderness of Being Elmo (it runs a scant 80 minutes; I wouldn't have minded a bit more than the glancing look the filmmakers give Clash's regrets over his shortcomings as a dad) and the problematic narration might sink a film concerning a less involving subject, or a more amiable one. But those defects are easy to overlook here; Kevin Clash is a captivating and genial figure, and Being Elmo is a thoroughly charming documentary.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.