Being Elmo: A Puppateer’s Journey

Being Elmo is the story of a man, who spent his entire life captivating the imaginations and the hearts of the world. He has worked as one of the most influential and beloved entertainers of our generation. This is the story of Kevin Clash and his persona as the heartwarming, bright red puppet, Elmo. Clash modified the character’s voice and personality; and in this touching, and surprisingly human, documentary we catch a glimpse into the life a man who used his voice, hands, and heart to turn felt and foam into a universally recognized and loved entity that represents the most powerful force on earth: love.
The movie is as wide eyed and innocent as any of the Sesame Street Muppets. Drawing in the audience it forces us to confront and question the cynical messages we have come to expect from reality based entertainment. This is in every way a documentary about real life, and yet it contains the same amount of magic as any Disney animated feature I have ever seen. It is a testament to hard work, imagination and never giving up on your dreams.
The story begins with Clash’s fascination with Sesame Street,a program that, unlike most other shows on television, took place in a neighborhood much like his own. It showed a community full of racial diversity, so much so that it even included puppets. Clash describes (and consequently we are shown) a scene from the first episode of Sesame Streetwhere Burt and Ernie speak directly to the viewer. This acted as one of the many influences that caused him to take a hands on approach to puppeteering. Early on in the film, Clash describes how he looked into his father’s closet and saw a trench coat whose fabric would be perfect for a monkey, so he proceeded to cut and stitch his very first puppet in a long legacy of creatures that he would give life to.
Kevin persisted in his dream, though some would ridicule and mock his fascination with his fabric creation. But the years of high school torment payed off when he was offered a position performing on a local television program. From there he only went up, first with a job on one of his favorite TV shows Captain Kangaroo and eventually on to working full time for Jim Hensen. We go along on this incredible journey side by side with Kevin. He retells us bits of information about his inspiring journey, and simultaneously we are shown bits of his history through studio recordings and old photographs, we don’t have to take his word for it, the proof is laid out in front of us.
The runaway success of his Elmo character was certainly unexpected. I say “his” Elmo character because the high voiced, friendly red monster we know now was not the original. Before being placed into Kevin’s hands, Elmo had a deep voice and almost caveman-like tendencies. That all changed. As Clash worked through voices and personalities, he settled upon the idea that this creature should be the embodiment of love. Elmo became kind and understanding and wanted simply to smother virtually everyone with hugs. A trait Clash soon learned to be invaluable as his Elmo character’s popularity soared.
One unforeseen result of the new adoration came in the form of children from the make a wish foundation wanting to meet Elmo. Clash retells us the first time he was told that a little girl had, for her dying wish, expressed a desire to meet Elmo. A challenge that Elmo, with all his gusto and giggles, rose to. This is just one of the many sobering elements of the film. For a movie documenting a puppateers life, the emotional levels are staggering. We relive the world’s reaction to the death of Jim Henson, we see a man who, though he was making millions of children around the world smile, wished he would have spent more time with his daughter. Kevin Clash is just a man, and is by no means perfect, he is the first to admit that. The power behind the emotional truths conveyed in this film are what make it so great. While the whole movie comes across as somewhat sugar coated, it is far from unbelievable.
Kevin had a dream, in the same way that you may have dreamed to be an astronaut or a firefighter, and he succeeded. It takes years of hard work, it takes ridicule and sacrifice, he makes mistakes and he wishes he had done certain things differently, but he succeeds. Elmo and Kevin Clash are one and the same. Kevin’s enthusiastic and optimistic personality pour through into the fabric and life force of Elmo. We are given a rare glimpse into the life of a very different type of man. A man that makes it his job to express kindness to millions upon millions of people around the world.