HomeAll postsBeing Elmo: a puppeteer's journey

Being Elmo: a puppeteer’s journey

Being Elmo

a review by Nalini Haynes

Being Elmo is a documentary about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo.  Kevin started making puppets when he was 10 years old, cutting up the lining of his father’s coat.  His parents were so impressed with the puppet, instead of being angry they said, ‘Next time – ASK FIRST,’ believing that what Kevin was doing was wonderful.

Being Elmo is a glossy and yet informative presentation of Kevin and his career, with a focus on Elmo.  The selective nature of the presentation makes this documentary suitable for children through to adults of all ages; it’s a heart-warming light biography with information about puppet making and manipulation that is almost incidental.  This style means the technicalities of puppetry doesn’t alienate the viewer who is more interested in people than puppets.

Kevin’s family were obviously poor and African-American in an era that saw much socio-political upheaval.  While their poverty is mentioned repeatedly, it’s also almost passed over in real terms and the political upheaval was not mentioned other than one comment where someone told Kevin to approach Jim Henson because ‘he doesn’t have any black puppeteers.’  The viewer is shown the outside of the house where they used to live in Baltimore, Kevin mentions not being able to access expensive fabrics and not using the right colour thread to sew a particular puppet because thread was ‘so expensive’ back then, but this is the extent of the discussion of the poverty.  Bullied at school for being different and for ‘playing with dolls’ was mentioned nearly as much as the poverty but again it felt like the nature of the bullying – apart from name-calling – was glossed over.  I felt the key counterpoint to the bullying was when asked how he withstood the bullying, to which Kevin responded that he knew his parents, brother and sister loved him, so what did he care?

Later, married with a baby, Kevin travelled the world with Elmo, refusing to allow other puppeteers to share Elmo to meet the incredible demand.  A few almost-throwaway-comments imply that this is the sum total of Kevin’s marriage and divorce, and yet Kevin’s daughter emailed him asking to spend time with him before she goes to college in the next three years.  It appeared Kevin is a workaholic but this is mentioned in terms of praise, with Kevin being essential to Sesame Street.  Coming from a poor background, doing something he loves but also working his butt off to secure a future for himself and his family, striving for security through work no matter the personal cost so he doesn’t have to ever go hungry again: these are things to which I relate.  Being Elmo is so family-friendly that these aspects of Kevin’s life are glossed over.  This is not a criticism but it is a frame for the movie.  Being Elmo sets out to be a family-friendly biography, not a gritty realistic portrayal of Kevin’s life.

This isn’t the first documentary about Kevin: when he was a teenager, a TV station made a documentary about him with his puppets.  Some of that footage is used in this new documentary.

The extras are well worth watching, with more of everything.  The creators of the movie talk about some of the footage they left out, showing clips they wanted to include but didn’t.  In Being Elmo, Kevin contacted an African-American boy and mentored him much like Kermit the Puppetmaker (not the frog :P)  mentored Kevin when he was in high school.  In the extras, the creators talk about how they wanted to show Kevin giving back to someone else so the process went full circle, hence Kevin’s first contact with this boy was on camera.  A mum whose ill child met Elmo was reunited with Kevin at an event where – I think it was the same event – Kevin performed for children who had lost everything in a tornado: this was in the extras.  The movie was feel-good, but you might need a few tissues for the extras.

Being Elmo is a feel-good documentary highly recommended for people of all ages who love Elmo, Jim Henson, muppets, puppets, Sesame Street and feel-good biographies.   The extras add more depth to the overall story.  It’s also a heart-warming and encouraging movie for any aspiring creatives.

UPDATE:  Kevin Clash has resigned amidst allegations of underage sex with youths.  The Age coverage includes text and video here.

UPDATE THE SECOND:  Sesame Street Workshop made an official statement yesterday here.  

UPDATE THE THIRD: The Australian report says that currently there is only one accuser and that he was not aware that Kevin Clash was Elmo.  Although the alleged victim’s lawyer claims there are two more potential claimants, there are no details as yet.  There have not been any criminal charges, this is about MONEY.   It is my hope that the truth will come out – if Kevin is innocent, that there will be no doubt about his innocence.  

Being Elmo and all associated images are © 2011 Constance Marks Productions, Inc., used with permission.


Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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