Making the most of a Muppet
When Kevin Clash plays Elmo, his face takes on an otherworldly demeanor as his arms manipulate the furry red monster. You can see his eyes drift off like they’re staring at somewhere far away, almost rolling into the back of his head. He looks like he’s possessed, like the high-pitched baby voice protruding from his mouth is being put there by the puppet on his hand instead of the other way around. Is it so crazy to think that being a Muppeteer involves a bit of cosmic reverse ventriloquism?
Even just seeing Clash’s face in the same frame as Elmo is a treat we’re not normally blessed with, since after all the whole point of the Muppets is to believe wholeheartedly that the creatures themselves are doing the performing, not the flesh-and-blood people whose arms are shoved up the stars’ colons.
It’s a testament to the genius of Jim Henson and his entire operation that, growing up as a small child who adored “Sesame Street” (and later as a young adult who sought out the old Muppet movies when my friends weren’t looking), I never stopped to think about who was operating Kermit or Cookie Monster or Oscar the Grouch. They were just … themselves.
One of the great revelations of “Being Elmo,” the bright and engaging new documentary directed by Constance Marks and Philip Shane, is how it opens up the world of puppetry, giving us just a taste of the precise machinations that played out behind the scenes of every seemingly chaotic Muppet shenanigan. Kevin visits the set of the French version of the show to train the Muppeteers, and the insights are fascinating, like how keeping the puppets’ mouths propped open slightly gives them the hint of a smile and makes them appear more alive. For anyone who knew the way to Sesame Street as a kid, this footage is like peeking behind Oz’s curtain and seeing an actual wizard.
Growing up in Baltimore, Clash would craft his own puppets, sewing his first one out of the fur that lined the inside of his father’s coat. Before he graduated high school Clash had made over 80 of his own puppets. Think about that for a second: 80 puppets, with no formal training, before he turned 18. If this guy never made it to Jim Henson’s workshop, he probably would’ve driven himself crazy.
But make it he did, by way of a local TV station and the now-defunct “Captain Kangaroo.” Clash rose the ranks of children’s entertainment at a stratospheric rate and before long he became Henson’s only African-American Muppeteer. Then someone threw Elmo at him, he busted out a falsetto and the rest is Tickle Me History.
You start to sense, toward the end of the picture, that this isn’t exactly a warts-and-all look at Clash. It’s a loving tribute, carefully constructed so that he becomes the Golden Boy, sort of like those audition tapes he sent to “Captain Kangaroo” so long ago. True, his life might not have very many warts — it’s entirely possible that Clash achieved the American Dream at absolutely no cost to himself. But there’s the matter of his teenage daughter, who we only see briefly in archival footage and who doesn’t get a chance to talk about what it’s like to see her dad constantly going away to entertain other kids. There’s also the simple fact that Elmo himself has absolutely dominated “Sesame Street” since his debut, pushing all the old-time characters (and, one presumes, their Muppeteers) to the background. Surely there’d be something worth exploring there.
Well now, listen to me. I’m starting to sound like Oscar. Who needs a dark and gritty portrayal of the man who plays the most lovable character on TV?
If Henson pioneered a new kind of performance with his creations, then Clash is the proud torchbearer of his legacy. And “Being Elmo” is a perfectly satisfying look at what has to be the goofiest (and furriest) kind of acting out there.
“Being Elmo” runs thru Thurs, Nov 17, 2011 at E Street Cinema, 555 11th St, Washington, DC.
“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”
Written by Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein
Directed by Constance Marks and Philip Shane
Starring Kevin Clash, and The Muppets