When he was just a little boy living outside Baltimore, Kevin Clash became entranced by the furry nap of his dad's coat. He cut it up and made a monkey puppet, left it in his parents' room and hunkered down to face the music. But his parents encouraged his talent and from that moment on he was on the road to "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey."
Considering the subject is known mostly for his work on a PBS show, producer/codirector Constance Marks and writer/codirector Philip Shane ("The Beatles Revolution") stay within the lines of the old school PBS documentary format yet succeed in promoting the 'Elmo is love' idea with charm. It's hard not to watch this story without a smile on your face and, speaking of charm, Kevin Clash appears to have led a very charmed life. It couldn't have happened to an apparently nicer guy.
The filmmakers are blessed with lots of old snapshots of Kevin during his formative years, when he built up an inventory of almost a hundred puppets and was spotted performing a show by a local television personality who auditioned him and hired him for a local show. Even better, Kevin's first meeting with Kermit Love, the Henson puppeteer who invited the teen to visit his workshop, was videotaped for posterity and we see one of Kevin's biggest mysteries - how Henson created puppets without visible seams - unveiled (the answer - fleece, which while ubiquitous now was only made for the Army back then). Kevin's boss assists him with an audition tape and realizes this means he'll lose the young man who, sure enough, went directly from high school to working on Captain Kangaroo in New York City.
It's surprising to learn how Kevin eventually works with the muppets and how he ends up on 'Sesame Street' even AFTER having to turn down Jim Henson's offer to work on "Dark Crystal" because he had two television commitments at the time. When they both ended, another door opened.
It's fun to see footage of Kevin at work with other puppeteers who those like himself consider legendary - Fran Brill, Caroll Spinney and Richard Hunt, who so hated the Elmo puppet he threw it into Kevin's lap (!) and told him to see what he could do with it. (It's funny to see Hunt's work with Elmo - so wrong in light of what Clash has done since.) Clash 'pays it forward' with his own response to a young girl who wants to follow in his footsteps, inviting her into his workplace and mentoring her, giving her tips and tricks of the trade.
The film features lots of testimonials and talking heads (Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell) and on the whole is one big love fest. The film only offers one odd peek into something that didn't go right for Kevin - when he begins talking about his daughter and showing the Elmo tape created for her birth, her expecting mother, who we're seeing for the first time, is described as his ex-wife. The man who delights millions of children needs to schedule time to spend with his daughter - at her request - when she turns sixteen.
Robin gives "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" a B.
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