Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey directed by Constance Marks (Constance Marks Productions, PG, 80 minutes)
Starring Kevin Clash.
The Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard of
Kevin Clash is the most famous person you’ve never heard of. He is the voice and genius behind the Sesame Street character, Elmo. Through viewing his life, it is easily seen that art functions only as well as what drives it. It is Kevin’s ambition, love for puppeteering, and most of all love for others that drives him, and it can be seen in his most famous puppet/muppet character, Elmo.
In the documentary, Being Elmo, Whoopi Goldberg narrates Kevin’s rise to puppet stardom. A teenager growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s, puppets, Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street mesmerized Kevin. Because of those television shows, Clash found he had very different aspirations than his classmates. He didn’t strive to be a fireman, ninja, or doctor like most boys, but rather to work with Jim Henson, the most famous puppeteer.
Kevin began his rise to stardom by stealing a coat from his father’s wardrobe and fashioning it into a puppet. His father, accepting the loss of his favorite coat, encouraged Kevin to create more puppets, saying, “Just ask next time”. The encouragement of his parents most likely spurred Kevin onto great success. His mom called Kermit Love, Sesame Street’s expert puppet maker, and persuaded him to take Kevin under his wing. Kermit taught Kevin the ins and outs of show business as well as the craft of puppet making.
There Goes My Hero
Through what Kevin describes as a “miracle,” he meets his hero, Jim Henson, after Kermit Love asks Kevin to participate in the Sesame Street float for the Macy’s Parade as the puppeteer for the lovable Cookie Monster. During the after party in the Macy’s building, Kevin meets Jim Henson, and, too nervous to get a word out, Kermit kindly does all the talking for him, getting him work with Henson himself.
Kevin, then, goes through a series of jobs for Jim Henson, including working on the movie Labyrinth, where Kevin worked on some incredibly complex scenes with the puppets. Kevin does a commercial with Henson, but the jobs are getting him nowhere.
The Greatest Puppet of All Time
Finally, we meet Elmo, speaking in a deep guttural voice, delivered by veteran puppeteer Richard Hunt, one of Henson’s right hand men. Hunt hates the character and gives up, exasperated and frustrated. He, in chagrin, tosses the puppet to Kevin, saying “maybe you’ll have better luck than me”.
Kevin labors over Elmo, and finally develops a character. Knowing that all great characters are inspired by something (i.e. Miss Piggy is a truck driver who wants to be a woman, at least according to the film), Kevin comes up with his inspiration: love. Love is what makes Elmo one of the most well-known muppets of all time. Culminating in scenes where Elmo makes a dying child’s wish come true by meeting him, the premise of the documentary becomes clear.
Art functions only as well as what drives it.
Great comedians are driven by the desire to make someone laugh and lighten their day. A great drama is driven by the desire to tell an entertaining story. But, all of these goals are ignoble compared to the inspiration that Kevin chose.
Kevin Clash picked the most noble of inspirations: love. The documentary states that Elmo has only become such a success because he embodies love. Elmo both gives love to others, and needs it as well. Clash succeeds in show business not through underhandedness or sly dealings, but rather through idealizing pure human emotion. Totally mesmerized by this documentary and Kevin Clashes single-minded pursuit towards being a puppet master, I sincerely recommend Being Elmo.
What do you think? Does it matter what inspires art? Should it matter, but we only choose to ignore it? Is Elmo the most famous of muppets? Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson