Heart Felt: Being Elmo Reviewed

This big screen profile of the Jim Henson Productions veteran Kevin Clash spotlights a highly skilled art form that's been eclipsed by technological advances. Chris Bell offers a personal perspective in praise of puppetry

In a year that has seen a triumphant return for the Muppets to the big screen and Disney’s $250 million CGI extravaganza John Carter sink at the box office, the release of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey feels somewhat timely. The winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2011, it’s as uplifting a documentary as you’ll see this year. If the decline of puppetry as a mainstream art form is self-evident, that memo apparently failed to reach director Constance Marks or her Baltimore-born subject Kevin Clash.

Clash’s rise from bedroom fanatic to one of the most highly regarded ‘Muppeteers’ in the business saw him work alongside some of the field’s 20th century legends, including Frank Oz and the great Jim Henson. Clash started out performing puppet shows for children in his neighbourhood before successfully auditioning for Stu Kerr’s Caboose at the age of 18. A precociously talented puppet builder and manipulator, he was taken under the guidance of Kermit Love, the wizened old pioneer whose creations include Big Bird and Mr Snuffleupagus. By his mid-twenties Clash was working on the feature film Labyrinth, before moving on to Sesame Street where he would create one of the best-loved characters in the Muppet universe, Elmo.

This doc isn’t especially dazzling visually, but the subject matter is absorbing enough to make it more than worth a visit to the cinema. The bountiful archive footage, including scenes capturing Clash’s first encounter with Kermit Love, reveals a then-teenager whose dedication to his craft can be filed somewhere between ‘passion’ and ‘obsession’. We see him feverishly go about discovering the secrets of Muppetry, from finding the perfect fabrics to hide a seam, to the famed (in the industry) ‘Jim Henson stitch’. He later describes his amazement at the realisation that, after working together on Labyrinth and various other projects, he was actually becoming friends with his hero Henson. If ever there was a man living his dream, Kevin Clash is him. There’s a touch of Almost Famous‘ young protagonist journo about him: wide-eyed and starstruck at the thought of collaborating with his idols Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt on the hallowed Sesame Street.

If there’s any part of Clash’s story that doesn’t sit comfortably, it’s his own acknowledgment that success as the hug-happy love-puppet Elmo has come at a price. He recognises the paradox of forging a bond with children the world over at the expense of a meaningful relationship with his own teenage daughter. At a slightly ostentatious 16th birthday party, included in the film seemingly to depict some degree of reconciliation, it’s hard not to cringe a little at the recorded video message projected on to a big screen and delivered by none other than Elmo – for whom Clash’s daughter may be forgiven for harbouring just a little resentment. It’s a subplot certainly worthy of more exploration, but it feels slightly brushed over here. That said, this omission allows attention to be drawn exclusively to the matter of puppetry and its importance to those who have connected with its numerous characters.

The topic is pertinent in a climate in which, despite the heroics of Kermit (the Frog, not Love), Miss Piggy and co at the box office and Academy Awards this year, puppetry in all its forms is disappearing from cinema screens. There of course are signs of life for the craft, such as Aardman’s successful return to physical stop-motion animation with The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, following the lukewarm response to their CGI exploits Flushed Away and Arthur Christmas. However, when we look at the box office returns of The Muppets ($158 million) compared with those of CGI animations such as Toy Story 3 ($1 billion plus) or even the mediocre Despicable Me ($543 million), it’s clear where the real money lies for studios.

With a partner who works in the model/puppet-making business, and housemates employed by a visual effects company that is responsible for the CGI sequences in blockbusters such as Inception and the Harry Potter franchise, my home often fees like a microcosm of this conflict between the old and the new. The smell of glue and resin radiates from a bedroom scattered with partly made marionettes, while 3D rendering takes place on laptops in the living room. My girlfriend bemoans the lack of regular film work available to puppet makers in contemporary Britain, and curses her luck for not being born 30 years earlier when Jim Henson’s Creature Shop called Camden its home. Recently, one of the other aforementioned housemates moved straight on to the Total Recall remake after wrapping up her involvement with The Dark Knight Rises. Somehow, two worlds have collided under one roof.

The increasing redundancy of puppetry as a mainstream art form is perhaps part of a wider socio-technological phenomenon. The 21st century has witnessed a decline in Things in general. Things that we can touch and see and smell. As the world goes digital, and vinyl, CDs, books, etc are phased out in the name of economics, and communication takes place via the social network in the name of bringing people closer together, our sense of the tangible isn’t what it used to be. Virtual reality didn’t take off, so reality turned virtual. That may seem like a trite observation, but the point is, in a world such as this, it’s hardly a surprise that the Thunderbirds, Pinky and Perky and Kermit aren’t the sort of thing getting kids excited nowadays. Although Pinky and Perky did make a brief comeback. In CGI of course.

My feeling is that ever-evolving technology and the increasing ubiquity of CGI means puppetry may never regain the dizzy heights of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s when Jim Henson and Gerry Anderson ruled the airwaves, but our love affair with puppets will never die completely. Despite the abundance of alternatives available to children, Sesame Street remains one of the world’s most-watched television shows, and with a sequel to The Muppets already in the pipeline, as well as Aardman and Tim Burton’s (with the forthcoming Frankenweenie) return to physical stop-motion animation, there are certainly signs of life. Dating back 3000 years, puppetry is an ancient and beautiful art form, and whether it finds its eventual home on TV, cinema screens or onstage, our bond with the magic of puppets is surely too strong to break. Just see the glee etched on the faces of Elmo’s fans in this inspiring documentary and I’ll wager you’ll reach a similar conclusion.

A full list of Being Elmo cinema screenings can be found at the Dogwoof website.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today