“Moon.” “Mama.” “Elmo.”
Those were the first three words my daughter spoke. For years I held a grudge against Elmo that his name was uttered before “Daddy.” But after seeing the revealing new documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” I’ll cut the furry red Muppet a break.
The central subject of the movie is actually Kevin Clash, a 50-year-old puppeteer who performs the movements and squeaky voice of Elmo. Like many of his generation, Clash was raised on the groundbreaking PBS series “Sesame Street” and its prime-time follow-up “The Muppets.” Encountering characters such as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch became a life-changing experience for this kid from inner-city Baltimore.
“Being Elmo” traces the talented Clash’s journey in ways both charming and illuminating. The film won a well-deserved Special Jury Prize in the documentary category at Sundance.
“When a puppet is true and good and meaningful, it’s the soul of the puppeteer you’re seeing,” Clash explains.
Filmmakers Constance Marks and Philip Shane take that sentiment to heart, detailing the humble beginnings of a youth who crafts his own crude puppets like those on his favorite shows. His hobby of “playing with dolls” leads to harassment in middle school, but by the age of 16 he’s hired as a featured player on a local TV program.
His first national break comes just out of high school when he’s asked to perform the role of Cookie Monster in the 1979 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Soon he’s introduced to Muppets honcho Jim Henson, earning him a shot on “Sesame Street” as its first black puppeteer. He eventually takes over a failing character called Elmo, delving into the advice of Muppets regular Frank Oz: “Find one special hook with that character.”
Clash determines “Elmo represents love,” and it is only a matter of time before the cuddly, three-fingered, orange-nosed character is a staple of children’s television. (Marks and Shane toss in a cutaway shot of Clash’s office that casually displays a batch of Emmys interspersed with puppets draped all over them.) When the Tickle Me Elmo doll craze hits, the figure becomes forever entrenched in pop culture.
It might be easy to dismiss the film as a simple “follow your dreams at all costs” account. Yet there’s something so disarming about Clash’s ambition that the story never descends into typical battles with those who didn’t believe he could achieve this goal. Instead, virtually everyone Clash runs across is so impressed with his abilities that they either help him or move out of his way while he climbs the career ladder.
The success doesn’t come without a price, though. Clash’s divorce gets a mention before his marriage ever does (the film timidly abandons any journalistic follow-through). And during a recent Sweet 16 birthday party for his lone daughter, Shannon, he regales her with video birthday wishes from famous pals such as Jack Black and LL Cool J. The high-profile gift is impressive, yet an undercurrent suggests that Shannon would have preferred some simple face time with her dad, whose work takes him away for months at a time.
It’s unusual for a documentary that doesn’t involve penguins to capture the imagination of young audiences. “Being Elmo” is that rare piece of nonfiction filmmaking that begets cross-generational appeal.
My daughter insisted on seeing it twice.
(At the Tivoli.)PUPPETS AND MUPPETS IN KANSAS CITY • Up-and-coming puppeteer Cedwan Hooks, right, showcases his talents and creations at a pre-screening presentation at 12:45 p.m. Saturday at the Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania Ave. Hooks, a recent graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School, is an apprentice puppet maker and operator with Kansas City’s Paul Mesner Puppets. He’ll be joined by two Mesner staffers. See tivolikc.com
•“Sesame Street Live: Elmo Makes Music,” featuring Elmo, Big Bird and friends, comes to the Sprint Center for eight shows Jan. 26-29. See sprintcenter.com.