Being Elmo (2011)

I have a confession to make: I never liked Elmo. Lay aside for a moment the oddity of a grown man having any opinions whatsoever regarding furry little puppets (the inner nerd in me has consistently championed Bert). On the other hand, Elmo’s high pitched babble and intensely bright fur were always a turn off.

I have a second confession to make: I was wrong.

It only took one moment from Constance Marks’ new documentary, Being Elmo, to convince me. In it, Elmo, played by his creator, Kevin Clash, welcomed a four- or five-year old girl to the set as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Elmo greets the shy girl as her father holds her close. But Elmo shows no reservation whatsoever, talking to her and quickly moving in for a hug and kiss. The girl, her timidity keeping her from showing any affection in return, clung to her father and absorbed the puppet’s affection. But then Marks’ camera moved from puppet to creator, and the tears welling in Clash’s eyes said it all. His heart showed through in his art.

And this was the most fascinating element of the film for me. Sure its presentation of Clash’s story was interesting, and even inspiring in places. The details it gave about some of the luminaries that Clash worked with were worth the price of the rental. And the opportunity to get behind the scenes into the world of puppetry, to see a place where it had been practiced with such skill for so long—these all provided more than enough for an engaging film.

But it was that connection between an artist and his art, the way that a man’s soul is made tangible in his creation, that was so compelling for me. By all accounts, including his own, Clash is a bit timid himself. And yet, when he straps on that puppet, everything changes. The love and affection that Clash has for others becomes clear in his portrayal of Elmo. His art allows him to connect with people in deep and meaningful ways.

The film supports this idea with testimonies from fellow puppeteers and others around Clash. And when Marks includes footage of the day Clash’s wife gave birth to their daughter, with Clash narrating as the ride to the hospital as Elmo, we see that even in these most significant moments of the man’s life, he speaks not as himself, but as his creation. And while this leads to another whole set of interesting—and potentially controversial—questions about Clash’s identity and personal life, the film elides these in favor a more positive and affectionate portrayal of the creator behind this most popular of puppets. Even a life-long Elmo detractor can appreciate that.

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