Even adults find it easy to imagine that puppets are self-sufficient beings untethered to human hands. Who really thinks of Miss Piggy or Kermit as a patch of foam and fur being manipulated off-camera by a grown-up with a funny voice?
The greater the illusion the greater the manipulator, and few are as good as Kevin Clash, the subject of Constance Marks's sprightly six-years-in-the-making documentary "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey."
Clash, who idolized the Muppets on "Sesame Street," started out making his own puppets as a teenager in Baltimore in the 1970s. He eventually got a job with Jim Henson, re-inventing Elmo from his initial grunty caveman persona to the cuddly love magnet of today. Clash is now billed as "Senior Puppet Coordinator and Puppet Captain" for "Sesame Street." It must be cool to have people refer to you as a puppet captain.
If this film is to be trusted, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. For someone who rose so rapidly in the ranks of puppetdom, Clash comes across as remarkably genial and unassuming (even though he has the physique of a linebacker). Marks has located much video footage of Clash as a teenager performing for local audiences and television stations. His doting, hugely supportive parents are interviewed. (As a boy, Clash once cut up his father's jacket to fashion a puppet. "Next time ask first," was his father's only rebuke.) There's even film of him visiting for the first time as a teenager the legendary Muppets designer Kermit Love, who does indeed look, as Clash says, "exactly like Santa Claus."
Right out of high school Clash began working professionally, first on local TV jobs and then, after moving to New York, for "Captain Kangaroo" and PBS's "The Great Space Coaster." Because he wanted to keep those jobs, he turned down an offer to work with Henson and Frank Oz on their Muppet film "The Dark Crystal." Both TV shows were canceled soon after. At age 25, in 1986, Clash got another chance to work with Henson, on "Labyrinth." From there he joined the Muppet brigade on "Sesame Street" – and not a moment too soon for Elmo. ("I knew that Elmo had to represent love," he says.)
Puppeteers often create alter egos with their puppets and this can sometimes come across as creepy. (The classic movie example is the ventriloquist episode from the great multipart British horror film "Dead of Night," remade years later for "The Twilight Zone," in which Michael Redgrave's dummy becomes a malevolent doppelgänger.) The "Sesame Street" universe, however, is relentlessly sunny, and this seems to fit the personalities of its progenitors. Even the sad material in this film has a restorative lilt. At a memorial service for Henson, the puppeteers sing a tribute to him while proudly holding their puppets aloft. When, at the request of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Clash, as Elmo, serenades a terminally sick little girl, she gives him a big, wide smile. Who can fail to be moved by this?
Marks doesn't explore the changing landscape of "Sesame Street" and the Muppets – how the franchise, purchased by Disney in 2004, has been trying to reinvent itself for a hipper, family-oriented crowd. (Check out Mark Guarino's story "Muppet make-over" in the Oct. 24 issue.) She also doesn't delve especially deep into Clash's background as one of the very few big-time African-American puppeteers. Her point would appear to be that, at a certain level, talent is colorblind. There's certainly a lot of color on display with the Muppets – including crimson, hot pink, green, chartreuse, navy blue, and Big-Bird yellow. Grade: B+ (Not rated.)