February 16, 2012

The Man Behind Elmo

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Who knew this cute little red guy we all loved as children had such a fascinating story behind his character? The amazing puppeteer who gave Elmo a heart, soul and voice is Kevin Clash. In the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, we not only witness the development of Elmo’s character, but also the journey that led Clash to his dream job of working with the Muppets.

While growing up Clash was obsessed, to say the least, with Disney. This obsession did not last very long, since soon after that, Clash discovered the show Sesame Street. He found this show much easier to relate to, since the participants of varied races and backgrounds, just like his own hometown Baltimore. Since that day, Clash resolved to become a puppeteer on Sesame Street. He quickly became enthralled by the workings of puppet-making. Even though puppetry was not a popular hobby for boys at the time, Clash stuck with it.

One day, he discovered that his father’s trench coat was lined with black fur. Clash had a brilliant idea. It dawned on him that fur would be good for making a monkey puppet, so he immediately got to work on a puppet named Mondy. Little did Clash know  that Mondy was only the beginning of a very successful career as a puppeteer.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg narrates Being Elmo. Through interviews with Clash’s friends and colleagues, she sheds light on Clash’s work and family life. She also interviews pupeteers such as Frank Oz and Jim Henson, who have worked with Clash on iconic projects like Sesame Street. At times, Goldberg’s narration left the film with less emotion than it deserved, although most of the time this wasn’t a big problem.

The music, on the other hand, was very trite. Since it’s so obvious that the show is supposed to be inspirational, it’s hardly necessary to play dramatic music throughout the show to reinforce the uplifting tone.

The most interesting part of the film was seeing how much effort went into finding the right voice for Elmo. Clash keeps repeating “hi” until he finds the one that fits the personality of the puppet. This doesn’t just involve sounds, the way the puppet’s mouth moves is also crucial.  It’s surprising how much the puppet’s facial expressions matter. When the puppet’s mouth is shut, it seems sad;  when the character’s mouth is left open just a tad, it seems happy and alive.

Overall, the film is excellent, but it does not adequately explain the reason for omitting a large chunk of time in Clash’s career development. The film has enough that the documentary is set up nicely and efficiently, but transitions between differenet phases in Clash’s life are abrupt. In one scene, Clash goes on a class trip to visit the Muppets factory in New York City; in the next, he tutors other students in puppetry. The film skips over how he was able to land such an incredible job with the Muppets and that’s presumably what most viewers are curious about.

Sesame Street continues to brighten the lives of children all over the world; we certainly don’t need a documentary to show us that. After all, many of us were among those children. However, this film is a must-see because it reveals how much being a puppeteer means to Clash. Clash’s mom claims that he is happiest when he is working with his puppets. Clash’s story is as inspirational as that of the rising basketball star Jeremy Lin — it’s up to us to take charge of our lives and achieve our own goals.

Original Author: Jacqueline Glasner