If youre a parent, grandparent or otherwise have spent a lot of time with kids, chances are you have an appreciation for Elmo, the furry, red Muppet of Sesame Street.
Elmos cute but not ingratiating (mostly), sweet but with enough of a toddlers self-absorption to keep things from getting too cloying. The documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey, which screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, takes a page from its subjects playbook to celebrate the artist behind the pop-culture phenomenon.
That artist is Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who breathed life into Elmo by giving the character a falsetto voice and a preschoolers sweetness. As one interviewee notes, Clash is the superstar no one recognizes.
Raised in a modest neighborhood outside Baltimore, he immersed himself as a child in TVs Captain Kangaroo and The Wonderful World of Disney. Shy and deferential, he was especially transfixed by Jim Hensons Muppet creations on Sesame Street. The admiring boy began making his own puppets, cutting the fuzzy lining of his dads overcoat to fashion a monkey.
By the time Clash was 17, he had landed a gig on a local TV kids show and gained a valuable mentor in famed puppeteer Kermit Love. Within a couple of years, Clash entered the Henson fold, working on the movie Labyrinth and eventually earning a spot on Sesame Street.
Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and benefited by an excess of remarkable archival footage, Being Elmo is an affable and charming look at an affable and charming personality. It is also fairly gushing; anyone expecting a warts-and-all documentary will be disappointed.
Theres nothing wrong with taking a surface approach, of course, but directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane allude to potentially meaty topics without delving any deeper. Clash concedes that his workaholic tendencies have made him something of an absent father to his teenaged daughter. That seems an irresistible irony for someone whose job is about delighting children, but Being Elmo pays it only perfunctory attention.
The documentary is most appealing when it lets Elmo be Elmo. Clashs joy in performing is palpable, and its easy to understand when you see terminally ill children visiting Elmo on the Sesame Street set.
I knew that Elmo should represent love, Clash says, recounting how he shaped the puppets persona.
The cynical among us might scoff at such a pronouncement as being mawkish or pretentious, but such detractors are the very ones who need Elmo most of all.