Being Elmo


Written by Suzie McCracken
Photos and illustrations by Scott McDermott
29 Sunday 29th April 2012

Kevin Clash’s story is undoubtedly one of overcoming obstacles, but unlike an X Factor VT it doesn’t require you to bite the inside of your mouth in order to overcome nausea. Apart from one scene with adorable Make-a-Wish children, the film is largely a celebration of one man’s mission to get his dream job and then to make people very happy. Even the aforementioned scene is done in the least sensationalist manner possible – it’s billed as one of the moments where Kevin realises that in creating a character that is overflowing with compassion, he’s done something pretty special. Being Elmo makes you realise that there was a world before Elmo, and that although Big Bird and the rest of the gang are far from evil characters, the red fuzzy Muppet is the first to be defined solely in terms of a gargantuan capacity for love.

This world before Elmo was, for Kevin Clash, a house in the anti-affluent area of Baltimore. He had a young obsession with Disneyland but there wasn’t the money to go. Instead, Clash built his own wonderland in his parent’s bedroom by creating puppets from the age of 10. Some examples of these felt creations are staggering, and when the adult Clash remarks at the messiness of his handiwork, one starts to recognise the strain of perfectionism that gets you the (world’s most awesome) job title - Sesame Street’s Senior Puppet Coordinator and Muppet Captain. The film utilises some gorgeously candid footage, particularly when a teen Clash holds up a new puppet before his face and starts trying out different voices. We’re quickly reminded that this is no usual coming-of-age story, as the tiresome ‘trying out lines on a girl in the mirror’ scene is inverted. Clash is actually this innocent. He is actually this passionate about his work. And it’s exciting.

Clash did children’s parties and shows in local schools before nabbing a spot on a Baltimore TV station where he honed his skills. Then, on a school trip to New York City, Clash got the chance to meet one of his heroes Kermit Love (who created Big Bird and many of the larger Muppets), who immediately took him under his yellow-feathered wing. It’s hard not to be wide-eyed as we receive a tour of the Jim Henson workshop as Clash once did; drawers full of fleece eyeballs are pulled out for us to view and Muppet shells hang from the ceilings. Far from ruining the magic, this unbelievable access to the Muppet making process and the detail and skill needed for these creations only enhances it.

From here, Clash’s rise only quickens as he meets his hero Jim Henson after animating the Cookie monster during the Macy’s Day parade. He then goes on to having an important role in the strange world of Henson’s film Labyrinth, before eventually heading to his new Sesame Street home and creating the world's most adored Muppet.

Being Elmo excels when it reveals the sometimes ridiculous-looking reality of the Muppets – a scene where Clash teaches French puppeteers to move their hands properly, sans puppets, makes for an hilarious dance of naked fingers. We also hear of how the puppeteers view their characters - Miss Piggy’s voice is described as “if a truck driver was trying to sound like a woman”. These heart string twanging anecdotes also reveal the devotion of the puppeteers, Clash telling of how he was often scolded for moving around the limbs of his newly born daughter as if she were a one of his prized furry monsters. This devotion is shown to pay off, as we’re taken along on a world tour whilst Elmo’s popularity was at its height, interspersed with footage of mums fighting over Tickle-me dolls in Walmart.

The film gracefully comes full circle as we witness Kevin Clash taking a young protégé on a tour of the workshop. This boy knows the name of every original puppeteer, asks questions about what materials are best to use, and comes bearing his own puppet for advice on handling it. It’s clear this isn’t a career choice for anyone apart from those totally immersed in the world of puppeteering, so we become all the more thankful for getting a peak at it. Apart from a slightly superfluous narration from Whoopi Goldberg, the film perfectly strikes a balance between enthusiasm and nostalgia that will be mimicked in your mood as you leave the theatre. Just don't try and give too many people a hug.

Need your heart warmed? Upcoming screenings all over the UK can be found here.

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