Sadly, the "Tickle-Me-Judge-Clark-Douglas" sold very poorly.
The soft-spoken man behind the furry red monster.
It's something of a testament to Jim Henson's overwhelming influence that Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey—a documentary about esteemed puppeteer Kevin Clash—mentions Henson's name at least as often as it mentions Clash's. That's only appropriate, I suppose, as Henson is largely responsible for Clash's stardom. It was the one-two punch of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show which gave Clash the inspiration to be a puppeteer when he was a young man, it was Henson's chief designer Kermit Love who served as Clash's mentor, and it was Henson himself who launched Clash into the big-time by giving him jobs on Labyrinth and Sesame Street.
Being Elmo is filled with warmth and enthusiasm for nearly its entire running time, only turning downbeat for a moment during a sequence covering Henson's untimely death. However, there's little turbulence in Clash's own life. He was a sweet-natured kid with loving parents. Sure, he was picked on by a few fellow students who mocked him for "playing with dolls," but he was admired and respected by many others. His career is one lucky break and success story after another, and Clash speaks with humbled awe at the journey his life has taken. No, it isn't terribly dramatic, but it's nice to see such a good-hearted man finding such wildly unexpected success.
The film will be of particular interest to those such as myself with a passion for Henson and his Muppets. For Muppet fans, Clash almost serves as something of an audience surrogate, as he was simply a huge fan who managed to get swept up inside a world he had only dreamt being a part of (I kept thinking of Walter in the recent big-screen updating of The Muppets). It's a joy to see the delight in Clash's eyes as he talks about meeting Henson for the first time and getting an opportunity to live his dream. I was particularly moved by the idol worship Clash grants the unsung heroes of Henson's television programs: Frank Oz, Carroll Spinney, Fran Brill, and Richard Hunt. It's even more touching when Clash encounters an aspiring young puppeteer who rattles off those same names with excitement as he observes a mural on the wall of Clash's studio.
Curiously, only a moderate portion of the documentary zeroes in on the famous title character. I've never been a fan of the direction Sesame Street took creatively in the wake of Elmo's rise to superstardom, but it's hard to have negative feelings towards the little furball once you get to know the guy playing him. When you see Clash and Elmo bringing joy to countless children—particularly the many disabled and make-a-wish foundation kids they encounter—you can't help but admire their life's noble work. The "Tickle-Me-Elmo" craze and the many celebrities Elmo has shared the screen with are regarded as little more than fun trivialities; the documentary consistently placing emphasis on Clash's deep-rooted desire to bring a little bit more love and happiness into the world.
The standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is solid enough, though a good deal of the archival footage (including a surprisingly large amount of footage from Clash's early years) looks pretty rough. The newer video clips and talking head segments boast sturdy detail. The Dolby 2.0 stereo track is a little muffled on occasion, but never distorted. Whoopi Goldberg's intermittent narration comes through with clarity and warmth. Supplements include an 8-minute Q&A with Clash from the Sundance Film Festival, a "Thoughts From the Filmmakers" (14 minutes) featurette, a 4-minute "Tau Performs the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" piece, an interview with John Tartaglia (6 minutes), and a trailer.
Running a scant 75 minutes and remaining relatively lightweight (not to mention skipping over a few key chapters in Elmo's Sesame Street history), Being Elmo occasionally feels more like a really cool bonus feature than a proper documentary, but I certainly enjoyed checking it out. It's worth a look for the casual viewer, and a must-see for Muppet fans.
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