DVD Review: BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER'S JOURNEY

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
I'll be frank, I'm not a child of the Elmo generation. I grew up among the second wave of Sesame Street characters in the early '80s, before Elmo became the icon he is today. I remember the character making a big impression on my younger sister before she was able to talk, but I was always a Snuffleupagus guy. That being said, it's hard to ignore the impact that Elmo has had on children the world over since he really began blowing up in the late '80s and early '90s. Elmo, more than any other character apart from probably Big Bird, is the face of Sesame Street, a place with which millions of children are familiar in dozens of countries. But how and why did this happen? I was surprised to learn that it was all due to the extraordinary talent of a single puppeteer, Kevin Clash. Being Elmo is his story.

One imagines that Sesame Street's many characters sort of exist in their own world, not necessarily that they are creations of a single creative force, but that is the case with Elmo. Sure, the puppet had existed in some form or another for years, with different puppeteers taking shots at characterizations to no avail, until one day in 1984 when Kevin Clash took a turn and made something special. Clash's complete embodiment of the Elmo character while working is the culmination of a lifelong journey and passion for puppetry.

We begin with Clash's very early attempts at creating his own puppet after seeing Sesame Street on TV at the tender age of 9 back in the late '60s, and follow him through the last forty years to the point he's reached today. Kevin Clash is probably the most well-known artist in a largely dying art, but an art that cherishes and encourages humanity in a unique way. His story is long, and filled with fortuitous meetings and opportunities grasped. It is a reminder to all of us that we only live once, and our passions deserve our attention and focus. Kevin Clash is a living example of a man who had a dream and made it come true through a curious mix of sheer will, a strong support system, and luck.

I'm no Elmo devotee, I find the character grating, but I'm also 32 years old and a bit outside the target demographic. The young children for whom Elmo is a close friend are another story altogether. Elmo inspires that purest kind of love that can only come from a child, the love that is unfettered by personal baggage and hang-ups, the kind of love that we all owe each other, and he does it effortlessly. The fact that an ordinary man is behind this character is almost impossible to believe, but Clash has imbued Elmo with all of those characteristics that we wish we still had as adults, and he makes children happy, almost without fail.

It's a marvelous thing that Kevin Clash does, and his story from ages nine through fifty is the kind of story we all wish we could live. Sure, he's a professional now, and he's attached to Elmo for better or for worse, but if I had one thing about myself that I could share and bring that much joy to the world, I think I'd probably be pretty okay with it, too.

Being Elmo is charming and less cloying than you might think. This is not a deification of the man, it is an explanation of the journey that brought this beloved character through life, told through the eyes of the man who saw possibilities when no one else could make this sack of felt and fur live. Kevin Clash is shown as human, even with his own weaknesses which he attempts to overcome, but a man with passion and dedication who would not give up his fight to be what he wanted and where he wanted to be. Being Elmo is a fantastically uplifting story that I've already watched three times with my son, and it hasn't gotten boring yet. Highly recommended.

The Disc:

As is the case with most documentary films on home video, Being Elmo is the result of the combination of various different levels of archival and contemporary materials. As such, judging the A/V quality of the presentation is a fool's game. It looks and sounds good. The video is anamorphic and the audio is clear and crisp. It looks as good as it can on DVD.

There are around thirty minutes of extras on Docurama's DVD of Being Elmo, which seems a bit scarce, considering how much they talk about cutting out of the film. There are some words with the co-directors, who explain the genesis of the project (one of them was a freelance cameraman who worked on Sesame Street), as well as bits and pieces of the film they had to cut out, some really neat sounding stuff. Many of these scenes are showed in extremely brief snippets, and I think a section of deleted scenes would've been appropriate. There is an eight minute piece on the Q & A from the film's Sundance premiere in 2010, most of this has been available online for those who've followed the film's progress. There is a 4 minute segment where a young puppeteer, around eleven, performs with the Sesame Street team on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which looks like a crazy dream come true. Finally there is a testimonial interview with John Tartaglia, a former Sesame Street puppeteer who went on to Tony Award winning glory with the raunchy Avenue Q.

Overall, there is some decent stuff in addition the film on DVD, but this movie has been on Netflix Instant for a couple of weeks, and I probably wouldn't spend a fortune to get these extra thirty minutes. A great film, see it any way you can.
Special Features Exclusive to the DVD;
- Some Thoughts from the Filmmakers
- Sundance Premiere Q & A with Kevin and the Filmmakers
- Tau Performs in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
- Interview with John Tartaglia
- Trailer
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