BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER’S JOURNEY

By Adam Shalvey

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey – 2011 – dir. Constance Marks

The first movie I cried during was The Patriot. I was in high school and my girlfriend and I were on a movie date and there’s a glorified patriotic moment late in the movie, where Mel Gibson’s character, his son recently killed in the Revolutionary War that Mel actively opposed, poetically takes up an American flag in a charge on the British. The writing is dopey in the whole movie and the scene is written as if Mel single-handedly reverses the outcome of the battle, but right there, when Mel was in his most ponytailed patriotic moment, as fearless as “La Liberté guidant le peuple,” facing an onslaught of muskets and bayoneted rifles, a tear ran down my cheek.

Since then, I’ve cried in many more movies at many more theaters. You could say that I have a history of crying in the movies. Not weeping, mind you, but definitely a few tears here and there. Even when a movie isn’t necessarily emotive or a scene warrants a different reaction, I often find a tear all welled up and ready for deployment. In the past two years as an usher at the Brattle Theatre, I’ve sat in the back of the theater and cried at—to shortlist—It’s a Wonderful Life (of course), Nostalgia for the Light, Beginners, and Solitaire, a skiing/snowboarding documentary.

I would like to be able to say that my crying is like Brett Martin’s plane crying, where he cries at any movie—emotive or bland, good or bad—when he’s on an airplane, but I’m not able to plead anything other than honest emotion. I get invested in a movie and I think the world they depict is real and I accept the characters as people, and then loud music messes with the dopamine levels in my brain, and usually one or two tears escape. Then I calmly wipe them off as I pretend to adjust my glasses.

And then there’s the case of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. Never have I so easily or so readily cried at a movie.

If, when it plays this weekend at the Brattle, you sit in the front row of the theater and look back at the lit faces in the crowd like Amelie is fond of, you would probably see quite a few cheeks that are red and ruddy and eyes that are watery. When I originally saw this in the theater, I think 80% of the theater was crying.

Let’s be clear: Being Elmo isn’t The Notebook, where Nick Cassavetes knowingly plays hand-after-hand of emotional blackjack where the dealer always wins; and it’s also not Marley & Me, where everyone in the theater knows well ahead of time that, yes, that dog is of course going to die. Elmo is an honest and stark look at someone motivated and so pure that he’s managed to build a life around being a model human and teaching others how to be better. Any tears that come up in the theater during this movie are simply because Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who is Elmo, is portrayed as being one of the nicest people alive.

The story: Clash is from a small working class neighborhood outside of Baltimore where he apparently grew up without any goals other than being a puppeteer. He’s an outcast and starts making puppets and performing on local television in his late teens. He gets a few really big breaks and fifteen years later he’s a regular in Jim Henson’s merry band of puppeteers. Then, he creates the character and the voice to go with the Elmo puppet. His creation is recognized around the world. Then he’s on Oprah. That’s his amazing career.

The documentary is well directed by Constance Marks, and the audience is manipulated to some extent—there are segments that have Koyaanisqatsi-esque music that gives the audience a feeling of immense wonder or posits the idea that something amazing is happening—but mostly the story speaks for itself and any emotional reaction is due to a perfect storm of sentiment: First, Clash’s calming personality and voice and general goodwill; next, seeing what he’s been able to accomplish and how his altruism has changed lives; And the kicker is a strong sense of nostalgia about a youth spent watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. This movie definitely lets one indulge in nostalgia.

Clash gives his daughter a wonderful 16th birthday party, he welcomes a young puppeteer into his studio just like Kermit Love (Jim Henson’s puppet maker) did for him as a young man, and he hugs everyone with his Elmo puppet. There’s no dark underbelly explored here, and there’s no grittiness. The footage that we see shows only the lighter side of Clash and the Muppets, and the interviews are steeped with positive recollections. And that’s fine with me. Clash’s apparent separation from his wife isn’t mentioned and his strained relationship with his daughter is glossed over and addressed as a personal flaw he is trying to work on. Sure, we don’t get to see anything other than the positive, but this isn’t Hearts of Darkness and I wasn’t expecting Clash to descend into madness.

The first time I saw it, I held back tears all the way to the Make-A-Wish scene, and if you can make it through that scene—where the sick girl and her family are enthralled with Elmo but also melancholic and we get to see Clash wonderfully handle it—without crying, you may be a robot. It’s touching and authentic. The next time I watched Being Elmo, at home, I cracked much earlier: at 27 minutes when we first see Clash put the Elmo puppet on his arm, I welled up with preemptive tears.

Kevin Clash may not be perfect, but Being Elmo shows that he’s worked his whole life to make his world a better place through his skill as a puppeteer and I respect that this documentary glorifies him. Before you see it, I recommend putting a few tissues in your pockets.