In the first few minutes of this look into the life of Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, I was captured. I was taken back to that childhood joy and madcap hilarity and fun that were Jim Henson’s most famous creations. That’s the enduring power of the Muppets and like a lot of people around my age I was raised and influenced by the likes of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show.
Kevin Clash is one of those people; though somewhat older than I, being one of the first generation to watch Sesame Street. A black kid growing up in Baltimore, his interest and growing obsession with puppetry makes him stand out, but never derided. His parents are encouraging to the point of not blowing their stacks when he cuts up a coat for material and his popular puppet shows entertain the local kids. He’s soon appearing on local TV and, through his passion and determination, works his way up to Jim Henson’s workshop. From there, Clash has the opportunity to meet and work with the man himself and become a Muppeteer. He becomes the man to really give the life and personality to Elmo and then it all takes off. Elmo becomes a phenomenon and Clash works and works and works it.
This is a very surface documentary, entirely given over to the success of Clash and the phenomenon of Elmo. There is some time given to the work of Henson and the Muppets (something I would love to see a full length documentary on) but things like the breakdown of Clash’s marriage and the difficulty of being there for his daughter when he’s on the road with Elmo are barely given lip service. To me there’s a rich vein of drama and irony in the man behind Elmo, the Sesame Street character beloved by children the world over, being unable to be there for his own daughter. And, frankly, Being Elmo just made me hungrier to see a really great, in depth documentary on Henson himself.
But on the flipside, this documentary never sets out to uncover great secrets or hidden agendas; this is not a hard-hitting piece of investigative filmmaking asking the tough questions about big issues. This is something we have almost become accustomed to in our documentaries; it's become expected that there is some cover-up or dark secret in the background. There have been any number of brilliant docos investigating corporate and government malfeasance, lies leading us to war or miscarriages of justice. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is exactly what it says on the tin. There is no dark secret behind the furry red monster; just a young black guy who followed his passion and made good. And it says much about the power of Henson's creations that even despite any shortcomings in this documentary, I still wanted to run away and joing the Muppet circus.