Being Elmo (Constance Marks, 2011)
I watched Being Elmo almost six months ago as I write this, in early September 2012. I’m starting this review—cheez-its knows when I’m actually going to finish it—in mid-February 2013. If you follow the vagaries of the Henson Creature Shop, just looking at those two dates will probably tell you why I found myself having to scrap every initial idea I had about how to approach reviewing this engaging, fun, just-shy-of-brilliant documentary about Kevin Clash. In case you are not a follower of same, I’ll fill you in: Clash, who started working for Henson’s studio in 1983, developed Elmo in 1985, and within a few years had become an integral behind-the-scenes member of Sesame Street, co-directing many of the show’s episodes and morphing into one of its main producers, abruptly resigned in November 2012 amidst allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors. (I’m sure I’m not the only person who immediately flashed back to Elmo’s appearances on The Frugal Gourmet when I heard that.) As I write this, the court cases are still ongoing; no idea how all this will shake out. But it’s now impossible to look at Being Elmo in the same way I did in September.
I had originally planned on starting this review by mentioning how much I hate Elmo. I am a child of the seventies; I was actually born in 1968, a year and ten days before Sesame Street went on the air for the first time, and I grew up with the show. I was something of a fanatic, my mother tells me. In the early days, Sesame Street aired three times a day, and before my school career, I would be in front of the TV all three times. I can’t speak to the absolute truth of this, but Netflix has a “Sesame Street Classics” series that collects bits from the first few years of the show, and watching it with the kid now, I remember quite a bit of that stuff despite not having seen it for more than three decades. Yeah, it made an impression. I’m also one of those people who thought the show jumped the shark the moment anyone other than Big Bird could see Snuffleupagus. Is it coincidence that happened in 1985? Couldn’t tell you. In any case, back to the initial point: I can’t stand the pink little horror. He’s loud, he’s obnoxious, his voice makes my teeth hurt. Much is made of the fact that Elmo’s personality is based on Clash’s in this documentary. I don’t see it, and that is very, very much to the credit of the personality of Kevin Clash, who comes off here as an affable, laid-back, and (most importantly, as a contrast to Elmo) soft-spoken individual who as a child preferred interacting with puppets to interacting with people. I can identify.
I’m not the kind of person who’s going to demonize Clash as a professional for things that happened in his personal life. I believe a person can be a horrid little troll personally and still be brilliant professionally. (The classic example: Richard Wagner.) I’m especially not going to do it before the jury returns whatever verdict the jury is going to end up returning. I may not be able to stand the character he created—when the kid isn’t paying attention, I have been known to fast-forward through as much of “Elmo’s World” as I can get away with—but the journey that Clash took from his lower-class Baltimore childhood (I, too, spent my early years in Baltimore; while I’m nine years younger than Clash, and so I would have probably missed the work he did there as a youngster, I knew a lot of the shows, and personalities, he and his mother talked about from the old days—a nostalgia trip indeed!) to being one of the most powerful men in public television is a fascinating one. No matter how things end up turning out, that will never change; this is the story of one guy with a dream, but who ended up having it realized way, way beyond anything his imagination could have handed him. Kevin Clash is the epitome of the American success story; if Horatio Alger were still alive, I’m pretty sure Kevin Clash would be his hero. It may no longer be possible to watch this documentary without having it weighted down by truckloads of meta, but empirically, that makes it no less inspirational. And I believe that’s the first time in at least a year I’ve used that word without even a trace of irony or sarcasm. ****