I’m old school when it comes to my “Sesame Street,” and I’ll go to my grave believing that Elmo is a punk. Kevin Clash, however, is definitely not a punk, not one bit. Kevin Clash is a dreamer, a talented artist, and an inspirational figure who oozes so much charm he almost makes me regret thinking that Elmo’s a punk. Almost.
Clash turned the former bit character into a Sesame sensation in the 80s, but his involvement with “Sesame Street” and with all things both Muppet and puppet began when he was a wide-eyed Baltimore youngster whiling his afternoons way in front of the television. Like all kids, he fell in love with characters like Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and especially Grover, but unlike his friends, Clash began wondering from an early stage how in the heck they made those puppets look so good. In the pre-Internet era, the only way for him to figure it out was to study the show intently and experiment on his own. The boldest of his early experiments could have proven a career-ending disaster. A young Clash decided the fur lining of his father’s jacket would make fantastic material for a puppet; fortunately for him his earliest work was so darned fantastic that dad didn’t even get mad, and mom was convinced that she had a little genius on her hands.
Mom was right, and Kevin went from entertaining the kids at mom’s day care with his puppet creations to putting on shows in hospitals and throughout Baltimore neighborhoods. At first this was a guarantee that young Kevin would get picked on by classmates, but once he landed a regular show on local television, he was a star.
Fortune, perseverance, and a very resourceful mother helped make sure that Kevin’s star would shine on bigger stages than Baltimore public television. Clash secured a meeting with master puppeteer Kermit Love, also one of Jim Henson’s right-hand men, and with Love as his mentor, the smiling teenager worked his way throug the circuit by way of “Captain Kangaroo,” “The Great Space Coaster,” a film gig on “Labyrinth” and eventually his dream trip to the place where everything’s A-OK.
After powering a few of his own creations, Love took over Elmo-duties from a prior puppeteer who had tired of the character, and after a massive creative makeover, he and the show’s producers had a juggernaut on their hands, or on Kevin Clash’s hands to be precise. Elmo’s baby talk, third-person referencing and constant pleas for hugs and his carpet bombing of “I love yous” quickly made him the most beloved character among the show’s very youngest viewers, and The Street (as we old schoolers call it) would never be the same.
The documentary, directed by Constance Marks, wisely lets Mr. Clash win over the camera and the hearts of anyone watching both while in character(s) and especially as himself, though the dividing line is not a sharp one. Clash’s sunny personality makes it easy to believe that Elmo is a direct projection, though he prefers to saythat Elmo is more a combination of his always-supportive and optimistic parents. Harden your hearts against this little red menace if you will, but if you remain unmoved by Clash’s quivery account of his first meeting with his hero Jim Henson then you’re just dead inside.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Archival footage (including some primo material from Clash’s meeting with Kermit Love) varies in quality but overall the SD transfer is a solid if unremarkable one. No problems worth noting.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is similarly solid and fairly straightforward. It’s not dynamic but the dialogue is clean and that’s all that matters. No subtitles are provided.
The DVD has 33 minutes of Bonus Footage, including the Sundance Premiere Q&A panel and Thoughts from the Filmmakers as well as two other short features. The disc also includes a Trailer and a text-based Filmmaker Bio.
I’ll never say a kind word about Elmo, but as for “Being Elmo,” it’s an audience pleaser in the most respectable sense of the term. And at 76 minutes, it’s the perfect running time for a documentary portrait. I could have lived without the unnecessary, sporadic narration by Whoopi Goldberg, but that’s a minor complaint.