Review: 'Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey'

Kevin Clash, the force behind Sesame Street's Elmo.

As kids - and probably adults, too - we don't think about the people behind creations

like The Muppets. We lose ourselves in the illusions they create. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

follows a man who does both. Kevin Clash, the voice of Sesame Street's Elmo,

still watches puppet shows with childlike wonder - but he's also made a career

out of doing them himself.

Clash

was interested in puppetry early, as a kid growing up in urban Baltimore. While

his peers were shooting hoops, he was building puppets, in the hopes of making

his way to Sesame Street, which he

considered a funhouse mirror of his diverse neighborhood - and a preferable

home.

The

first half of the film is an exhilarating free-fall through Clash's youth, a

barrage of photos and footage of his work with local TV shows all the way up to

his collaborations with master puppeteer Jim Henson.

Without

a puppet, Clash is shy and reserved. While performing, he bursts with life.

Although his characters seem otherworldly on the surface, they share his DNA,

his humanity. As one of his colleague says early in the film, "When a puppet is

good and meaningful, it's the soul of the puppeteer you're seeing." And as

Elmo, Clash radiates a pure, unconditional love for life.

Director

Constance Marks matches Clash's exuberance in chronicling his steps out of the

backstage shadows and into the spotlight. Not merely a glossy look at dreams

come true, Being Elmo finds pathos in Clash's story. There is a

particularly poignant and multi-layered moment during his daughter's sweet

sixteen party. When Elmo pops up in her tribute video,

we see Clash shed a tear, not only out of pride in himself and his daughter,

but also out of regret for missing most of her childhood to bring joy to others

through that character.

In

addition to being an emotionally complex character study, the film serves as a

fun trip down memory lane for viewers of all ages. (The sequence about the

Tickle Me Elmo craze may bring back some bad memories for parents, though.)

Being Elmo is ultimately a heartfelt exploration of the creative process, making the magical

tangible without stripping it of any magic. And like most biographies, it is

similar to a comic book origin story, making its hero at once relatable and

larger than life. That's where the inspirational,

motivational quality of bio-pics comes from - the

notion that the extraordinary subjects on screen could be any one of us.

In recent interviews,

Clash said that when he performs as Elmo, most kids - and a few adults - simply

see him as "the guy holding their friend." This film shows that he is much

more. The documentary is more than it seems as well. I went into it expecting a

fluff piece and came out misty-eyed from one of the year's best films.

Friday, Dec. 9, Indy Film Fest will host

a screening of Being Elmo

at Earth House (237 N. East Street). Tickets are $5 in advance, $8 at the door.

The film starts at 7 p.m.

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