SUNDANCE REVIEW: 'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey' Pulls Back the Curtain on Iconic Character

Sundance Film Festival - Being Elmo - 2011
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
Profile of exceptional performer charms with unexpected delights.

Constance Marks' U.S. Documentary Competition film will connect across generations and cultures as it traces the career of African-American puppeteer Kevin Clash.

PARK CITY -- (U.S. Documentary Competition) Who doesn't love Elmo? Sesame Street's sweet-natured, red-furred puppet with the big orange nose and comically crossed eyes has been entertaining and educating kids for two decades on the national PBS show. Pulling back the curtain on this iconic character, doc filmmaker Constance Marks discovers African-American puppeteer nonpareil Kevin Clash, the artist behind the puppet persona.

Running just 76 minutes, Being Elmo is suitable even for young viewers and has outstanding potential to reach a loyal, built-in family audience in theatrical release, as well as on public TV or cable, DVD and VOD.

Marks' doc is wonderfully enhanced by an incredible timeline of home video, archival footage and TV clips illustrating the arc of Clash's career. Beginning as a puppeteer when he was only 10, Clash conceived, designed and constructed his own characters in his parents' Baltimore-area home in the 1970s, putting on backyard shows for neighborhood kids. Gaining the attention of local entertainers, he began to perform publicly before being cast on the local CBS affiliate's Caboose children's program.

As a teenager, Clash was introduced to the renowned Kermit Love, lead designer for near-legendary puppeteer and Muppet creator Jim Henson, who encouraged the young performer's career after observing Clash's creative and acting skills. Just out of high school, Clash landed a role on the classic Captain Kangaroo TV show and moved to New York City, although it wasn't until 1986's Labyrinth that he realized his lifelong dream of working with Oscar-nominated director Henson.

Clash joined Sesame Street in the mid-80s, working with some of the world's top puppeteers, although it was by complete coincidence that he assumed the role of Elmo. Clash reinvented the furry red monster as a mischievous character pitched to connect with the youngest audience members through simple dialogue and copious hugs. "I knew that Elmo had to represent love," he succinctly recalls in an interview.

Clash has been the Elmo puppeteer ever since, performing on the show as well as for PBS specials, DVD releases and TV movies while earning nine Daytime Emmy Awards. He eventually assumed the title of Sesame Street's Senior Puppet Coordinator and Muppet Captain, while also directing and producing show segments and TV specials.

With six years in production, veteran doc filmmaker Marks was able to expertly weave together the strands of Clash's career, combining archival sources and generous interviews with the performer and his many admirers. Whoopi Goldberg provides suitably sparse, incisive narration, while the priceless footage of Clash performing Elmo on TV and for live audiences gets to the core of the effusive enjoyment he takes performing for youngsters.

Although the filmmakers could have provided more background on how the character of Elmo was developed and his integral role on Sesame Street, the little monster does a pretty good job of speaking for himself.

Production values are top-notch, particularly the cinematography by James Miller and Joel Goodman's energetic, fanciful score. Being Elmo is a rare documentary that will connect across generations and cultures to delight viewers worldwide for years to come.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production company: Constance Marks Productions
Director: Constance Marks
Screenwriters: Philip Shane, Justin Weinstein
Producers: Constance Marks, James Miller, Corinne LaPook
Director of photography: James Miller
Music: Joel Goodman
Editors: Philip Shane, Justin Weinstein
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 76 minutes