Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: "Being Elmo" is inspirational, thoughtful, heartwarming, and the best documentary of 2011

Film Rating: A

Constance Marks’ documentary “Being Elmo” is the perfect companion piece to “The Muppets,” hitting theatres next week (you can read my review here).  Both explore the impact Jim Henson’s legendary characters have had on the world, how the Muppets inspire the best in the young people who follow them, and how their unbridled optimism still holds relevance in our increasingly dark, pessimistic world.  “The Muppets” does this through a fictional, celebratory meta-narrative, and “Being Elmo” covers similar territory be telling the life story of one of the most influential Muppeteers of all time: Kevin Clash, better known by his stage name – Elmo.  Continue reading after the jump...

As a child in Baltimore, Clash fell in love with “Sesame Street,” the then-revolutionary new children’s program.  Fascinated by the Muppet characters Henson and company created, Clash began crafting puppets of his own, studying “Sesame” and, later, “The Muppet Show” closely.  Clash created dozens of puppets to perform with, putting on shows for local children; during High School, Clash was hired to do the puppetry on a local kid’s TV show, and on a school trip to New York, visited Kermit Love, the craftsman who brought Henson’s characters to life.  Through these connections, Clash began working on bigger and bigger material, including “Captain Kangaroo,” and after Jim Henson asked him to serve as one of the leap puppeteers on “Labyrinth,” went on to join the cast of “Sesame Street.”  There, he perfected and performed the role of Elmo, portraying the iconic character since 1985.

First and foremost, “Being Elmo” is a relentlessly inspiring film.  It is simply amazing to watch Clash achieve his dreams every step of the way, but it’s not as if things simply fall into place for him.  People gave Clash opportunities because he worked hard, because it was easy to trust in a boy who wore his passions on his sleeves.  In a time when we are so often presented with tales of despair, especially in documentary filmmaking, Clash’s story is a rousing affirmation that it is indeed possible to follow one’s dreams to fulfillment.  

It just takes a whole lot of heart, and Clash is certainly full of that.  One of the qualities that makes him an immediately endearing figure is his selflessness, his unwavering regard for others.  Early sequences demonstrate that Clash didn’t make Puppets his passion just for fun, but because he recognized the impact his characters had on children.  He could entertain, educate, and heal, and that connection he began forging with children, even as a teenager, drove his life’s work.  I believe that’s what inspired Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Richard Hunt, and all of the other original Muppet performers as well, and that similarity of spirit is what got Clash’s foot in the door.  In that sense, there’s no better subject than Clash if one wishes to study the importance and creation of the Muppets; he embodies everything that makes these characters not just wonderful, but influential.

There is a scene near the middle of the film that exemplifies these qualities: the Make-a-Wish foundation brings a dying little girl to the set of Sesame Street, where Clash spends some one-on-one time with her as Elmo.  The sequence is purely observational, but it is blindingly beautiful; through Elmo, Clash gives the girl exactly what she needs, the knowledge that she is loved, that even a figure as iconic as Elmo loves her unconditionally.  The scene broke me.  Even sitting here, typing these words, I find my eyes welling with tears.  The sequence cuts straight to the heart of what makes Elmo so special, and in a broader sense, defines why “Sesame Street” and the Muppets aren’t just successful and beloved, but important, eternally relevant pieces of our cultural landscape.

The film is also fascinating, especially for those interested in Muppet lore and craftsmanship.  I will never forget a sequence where Clash travels to France to train a foreign “Sesame Street” crew, giving them a master class in Muppeteering.  The mind-boggling amounts of nuance and thought Clash displays opened my eyes to the artistry that goes into breathing life into these characters; even after watching Clash to eloquently dissect his methods, I’m still not entirely sure how he illustrates Elmo so vividly with such limited resources.  “Being Elmo” is a glorious celebration of Muppet craftsmanship, and as Clash works his way through the ranks, we also get a great dose of Muppet history.  In particular, I loved Henson’s role in the story; to Clash, he was a sort of legendary, often intangible father figure, and it is beautiful to watch their relationship slowly but surely develop into friendship.

As a film, “Being Elmo” is flawlessly made.  I often find that even the best of documentaries are unclear; they may have moments of narrative or thematic confusion, and more often than not, tend to go in circles.  Not here.  Director Constance Marks has fashioned Clash’s life into a clear, coherent narrative, one that flashes back and forth between past and present to draw connections while never becoming confusing or messy.  It is perfectly paced without a single extraneous moment, and Marks keeps things visually interesting even when there’s not footage to go along with certain anecdotes.  Most importantly of all, Marks celebrates Clash without deifying him; Clash is open about some of his life’s mistakes, and the portrait that emerges is not of a manufactured idol, but of a human.  A spectacular human, perhaps, but also a palpable one, a figure we could all strive to become through hard work and a good spirit. 

That’s where the power of “Being Elmo” truly lies.  It exemplifies the humanity and grace that goes into creating such wonderful characters like Elmo, and like the new “Muppets” film, epitomizes why we will always need these sorts of pure, idealistic figures in pop culture.  And though Clash is really the film’s focus, I also gained a new appreciation of Elmo, remembering how much I loved the character as a kid and realizing how much more important he has been to the world at large.  Deservedly so, I think.  At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some serious Muppet domination on my year-end top-ten list. 

"Being Elmo" is currently playing at the Denver Film Center//Colfax.  

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