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BEING ELMO – there will be tears

Constance Marks and Philip Shane’s BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY pulls at the heartstrings like a skilled marionettist. Winner of the 2011 Special Jury Prize at Sundance, this film continues to prove that audiences are hungry for documentary content that inspires. (See BUCK, another success story.) It’s highly likely that if you see this film, the incredible story of how puppeteer Kevin Clash not only realized his dream of working with Jim Henson but also ended up creating one of the most beloved childhood characters of all time, you will choke up. Is it the filmmaking or the subject matter? Both.

Thankfully, Marks and Shane take a fairly restrained approach, considering how easily this material could have sunk into treacle oblivion with excessive scores or other cinematic tools to heighten what’s already there: modest beginnings, a dream, hard work and incredible success. And the fact that it’s Elmo, a character built on the notion of unconditional love for children? I’m tearing up right now!

The filmmakers avoid excess and craft something lean enough to allow us to experience the muppetry beyond a spectator’s perspective. One of the film’s great strengths is the opportunity it affords to observe these incredibly hard-working artists up close.We’re right there with them as they shoot a sketch from Sesame Street, huddling and swaying together in a kind of strange dance, their limbs alive, their voices altered beyond human recognition. We see them rehearse without puppets, allowing us to register how the hand and its micro movements make or break a puppet’s expression. And most of all, the film gives us intimate access to Clash, a person who was fundamentally shy before blossoming into a world class performer. The question arises: Why was this story untold for so long? Clash must have been waiting for the right moment and the right team. Good timing, just like his incredible career.

–AH