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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

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

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

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

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