Review: ‘Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey’

'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey'

Too schematic for theatrical, this years-in-the-making docu will find long life on TV.

There are Piggy people in the world, and Kermit people, and Grover people, but Elmo people are everywhere, which promises a lot of love for “Being Elmo,” the story of the linebacker-sized Kevin Clash — the hand, voice and soul of the beloved Muppet — and how they both got where they are. Too schematic for theatrical, this years-in-the-making docu will find long life on TV, whence Elmo, the perpetually 3-year-old, hairy red pronoun-eschewing monster, sprang.

Clash seems to embody his own odd couple — passive as Kevin, antic as Elmo. “Kevin comes alive as Elmo,” a colleague says early on, and one can say something similar about the film. Helmer Constance Marks gives us a gentle giant of a man, whose precocious interest in puppets and puppetry was inspired by the same show that made Elmo a cultural fixture, “Sesame Street.”

“Being Elmo” is also a triumph-of-the-outsider story: Clash, who grew up outside Baltimore to highly supportive middle-class parents (both of whom appear onscreen) was playing with puppets when his classmates were playing basketball; his recollection of having cut up his father’s coat to create one of his many Muppet-inspired characters is a remembrance of childhood fear, but also a story of focus: Clash was so intent on making his art that he forgot what he was doing.

It’s the kind of intensity that’s belied by Clash’s character, which is soft-spoken and passive — even in the world of Clash’s mentor and champion, the late Jim Henson, one wonders how a guy so self-deprecating got so far so young.

Marks, and co-director Philip Shane, detail Clash’s career, from his breakthrough job as a puppeteer with “Captain Kangaroo” to PBS’ “The Great Space Coaster”; he passes up a job on Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” and takes a job on “Labyrinth” which provides his portal into the “Sesame Street” universe. All in all, the pace — although buoyed by Joel Goodman score — is rather plodding until Clash’s life story intersects with that of the little red guy, at which point it lifts off. And even yanks a tear or two: Elmo’s visit with a Make a Wish child is a heartbreaker.

Tech credits are good all around, notably the cinematography and score, which mercifully avoids the music of “Elmo’s World.”

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Production

A Constance Marks Prods. presentation. Produced by Marks, James Miller, Corrine LaPook. Directed by Constance Marks. Co-director, Philip Shane. Written, edited by Shane, Justin Weinstein.

Crew

Camera (color), James Miller; music, Joel Goodman; music supervisor, Maxine Kozler Koven. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2011. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Kevin Clash, Joan Ganz Cooney, Frank Oz, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin P. Robinson, Carroll Spinney, Fran Brill.

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