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"Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey": Sweet Documentary Remains Frustratingly Impersonal 

Wednesday, Dec 14 2011

Constance Marks' documentary on Kevin Clash, the kind, gentle man who created the Muppet beloved by every single child in the world, rushes through the intriguing points its interviewees bring up to devote more time to banalities. Instead of hearing more from the colleague who told Clash, "Jim [Henson] doesn't have any black puppeteers, so you need to tell him what you do," we must endure Whoopi Goldberg's snoozy voice-over: "Kevin loved watching television." Clash, born in 1960 outside Baltimore to two devoted parents (on camera infrequently, like most of the amiable subject's family), built 85 puppets by the time he reached his teens, entertaining the kids at his mom's daycare center and soon working on local TV shows. At 18, he attracted the attention of Noho-based Muppet designer Kermit Love; Marks dramatizes the young man's trips to New York City with stock footage of an Amtrak train traveling along the Northeast Corridor. After the meeting with Love, the film settles on a bullet-point trajectory of Clash's career, leaving out any mention of his personal life other than one offhand remark about "my ex-wife, Gina" and a too-long scene at his daughter's 16th birthday party. Of his furry, red creation, we learn that Elmo was first operated by Sesame Street's Richard Hunt, who gave the puppet a "caveman-type voice" and despaired of what to do with it, tossing it over to Clash in 1984. His makeover was simple: "I knew that Elmo should represent love — just kissing and hugging."

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Melissa Anderson


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