Saturday, March 10, 2012

Paragraph Movie Reviews: Being Elmo

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

What makes a great documentary? I found this story of Kevin Clash's rise from his childhood dream of becoming a puppeteer to becoming the man who brings Elmo to life and all the steps in between to be captivating, heartwarming and inspirational. Clash is an intensely likable and interesting subject who speaks passionately and with great recall about his life and the adventures he's had throughout. The amount of archival footage that director Constance Marks was able to acquire dating back to Clash's high school days and detailing every step along the way from local Baltimore cable to Captain Kangaroo to Sesame Street is impressive and just cool (Clash either didn't believe what was happening and wanted to document everything, knew a documentary would someday be made of his life, or maybe a little of both with the amount of stuff he taped). The supplemental interviews from Clash's parents as well as figures like Frank Oz and other legendary members of Jim Henson's team were great; nothing felt tossed out. And of course the highlight (at least for me) was getting a behind the scenes look at how the Henson operation runs, be it through old test footage from a commercial Clash did with Henson and Oz to Clash helping train the staff of France's Sesame Street; it's fascinating to see what goes into these productions. I also loved watching the growth of Clash's relationships with grandfatherly Sesame Street designer Kermit Love as well as with Jim Henson himself, the stories of which I thought were supplemented in a neat way by the use of old photos and motion animation to fill in the gaps of what wasn't videotaped. Going back to the question I posed at the start of this review, though, does a documentary need some sort of tragic angle or obstacles the protagonists overcomes in order to be great? The bulk of Being Elmo tells me it does not, as most of the piece focuses solely on the positive aspects of Clash's life and career, and that worked just fine for me. There are a few spots, though, where Clash's strained relationships with his ex-wife and daughter come into play, and they just don't match up with the rest of the through line for me. There seems like there's a whole other documentary to be made about things like Clash's ex-wife telling him not to treat their daughter like a puppet or his regret over spending time making other children happy while not seeing his own; it's sad stuff and a provoking commentary on how people who never fully grow out of their childhood have difficulties with adult relationships and being parents. However, this portion of the documentary is dropped in somewhat haphazardly--his marriage is not mentioned until Clash talks about his daughter, and he already there refers to his spouse as his ex-wife--both souring your mood in the midst of this feel good tale and also raising questions that don't get fully explored. It feels like the filmmakers felt like they couldn't fully ignore this aspect of Clash, but also didn't want to give it more than minimal space; it's a 15-minute section you get the sense they felt obligated to put together rather than wanting to. However, warts and all, Being Elmo I would argue is indeed a great documentary and I'd highly recommend it.

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