Being Elmo is a feature documentary by director, Constance Marks and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. It takes as its subject one of Sesame Street's most beloved characters, Elmo and the man behind the puppet, Kevin Clash.
Clash is no ordinary puppeteer. He is quite simply, one of the leading lights of his profession whose characters include Elmo, Hoots the Owl and Baby Natasha. He is Sesame Street's Senior Puppet Coordinator and Muppet Captain as well as Sesame Workshop's Senior Creative Consultant. He is a rare breed, a person who knew what he wanted from a young age, who sustained school yard torments and directed all of his energy to achieving his goal: to enter into the world of Jim Henson and the Muppets.
With a professional rise that is nothing short of spectacular and an equally compelling personal narrative, Clash proved an irresistible subject to director Marks. “I was overcome by curiosity,” she says from her New York City office. “I wanted to know who was behind this character, behind this technique. His performances are so nuanced. He can make that character seem absolutely real. He's definitely got a charisma and a light inside of him that I don't encounter in many people. He's got 'it'.”
Marks' documentary spans the breadth of Clash's brilliant career, from his early days in Baltimore, as one of four children of Gladys and George Clash, who provided the unwavering support that Clash credits for his success. We see the young Clash dream of working with the Muppets at age nine; build his first puppets at the age ten and perform for local neighbourhood children, including the day-care children his mother supervised in the family home. We watch as Clash moves to local television and attracts the attention of master puppet maker, Kermit Love who started to mentor the teenager while still in school. When Clash finished high school he immediately moved to New York where he began working on The Great Space Coaster and Captain Kangaroo. His film credits include Jim Henson's 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and II, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets from Space and Elmo in Grouchland.
Along the way we see Clash's creation of Elmo, a character who symbolises love. The youngest character on Sesame Street, Elmo is a perennial favourite. As master puppeteer, Martin P. Robinson says in the film, “When a puppet is true and good and meaningful it's the soul of the puppeteer you are seeing”. It is a thought echoed by director, Marks who says now, “The generosity of this person. Nothing is too big. Nothing is too small for him. He'll take on the littlest thing to help somebody, or something monumental”.
While Marks herself was trained in the Cinéma vérité tradition as an assistant editor for the style's luminaries, David and Albert Maysles, she found a need to approach Being Elmo in an entirely different way. “I've been in the business for a long time but I'd never made a film that was as much a biography as this one,” she says. “The film really did have to be constructed and written almost as a screenplay. It was divided into three acts and we had to figure out how to divide those acts to create the overall arc of the story. We decided to be very disciplined about the fact that there is an enormous amount of strong vérité footage. We would only use that footage when it moved the story forward. If it started to feel like you were taking a departure from the forward movement of the story, out it went. There were a few scenes that we came close to losing before we figured out how they could fit into the story organically. That in a large part fell to the editors. Especially Phil, [Philip Shane] he cracked the code of this film. I had worked with Phil in the past and I was waiting for him to become available. I needed help and he needed a job. So it was a very happy time when we realised we could work together again.”
In this way, Being Elmo is neither a straight biography of Clash or a vérité study of his life. It is a hybrid, one that uses archival material to great effect. The documentary tracks the influence of the great many mentors who took Kevin under their wing from the very beginning, like John Ziemann from WMAR-TV, where Clash was launched. Ziemann had kept rare footage from Kevin's first television appearance in Baltimore and his audition for Captain Kangaroo. “That showed up on the doorstep one day,” Marks says now. “'Maybe you could use this', the note said.” Most of the other archival footage that she and producer Corinne LaPook tracked down, was found via the “normal procedure” for a documentary filmmaker: “It takes time. It's detective work”. Fans of the Muppets will revel in rare behind the scenes and archival footage of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Kermit Love as well as vérité footage of Clash on the set of Sesame Street and training puppeteers in France.
For Marks, one of the sweetest surprises on completion of the film has been the emotional audience reaction. “We have so many young and older men coming up to us and telling us, almost as a badge of pride, “I cried through your movie. More than once”,” she says now. “Over and over we hear this from men. Certainly from women. There's something going on that's very deep that's affecting people to feel very uplifted by Kevin's story, And moved by it. That was a big surprise to me.”
When pressed to define what exactly it is that resonates so strongly with audiences Marks admits, “We started asking people what is it? For everybody it's different but there's something along the line of this child had a dream and he was teased. He had a family who loved him and supported it. And he knew it. I think people think back to their early years. Maybe they had a dream. Maybe there was something that they wanted to do. Maybe they turned their back on it. Maybe they didn't do it. Maybe they want to revisit it. There's something very personal happening within people that goes beyond Kevin's story. That's one facet of it. Seeing his family and all of these mentors recognise his talent and holding up so he can keep rising, creating steps for him to ascend. There's something very beautiful about that.”
Being Elmo won the Jury Prize 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Its exclusive ACMI season runs from December 27 – January 8.