Hand puppets might seem an unlikely subject for the feel-good documentary of the season, but as evidenced by Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, it's clear that all hand puppets are not created equal—and neither are their puppeteers.
Screening at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 6-16), Elmo stands out amidst an already strong slate of films. Surprisingly moving, Elmo traces the rise of that impossibly cute, red, fuzzy monster muppet from Sesame Street, side by side with the story of Kevin Clash, the driven young puppeteer who helped make Elmo one of the most recognizable icons on the planet.
Directed by filmmaker Constance Marks, the film opens with Clash's challenging childhood in Baltimore, Maryland, raised by parents with little money but plenty of faith in their odd, shy and oft-bullied kid, who played with puppets and dreamed of someday meeting Jim Henson.
Tightly constructed by Marks, the documentary skips back and forth in time, intercutting focused interviews (ranging from Clash's family members to such puppetry superstars as Frank Oz, Kermit Love and Caroll Spinney) with plenty of crisp archival footage of Clash's climb from neighborhood entertainer, his big break on Captain Kangaroo and finally into the magical muppety realm of his childhood hero.
Especially dazzling is the behind-the-scenes material, which pulls back the curtain on the Henson universe and shows how Sesame Street characters are (often accidentally) brought to life. There's something oddly thrilling about the sight of a cabinet filled with eyes, noses, mouths and ears, each waiting to become part of some muppet's brand new face.
In many ways, the heart of the film lies in the mentorship between Clash and muppet-master Kermit Love, who recognized a young man's talent and was the first to encourage him to take his dreams seriously. It's an act of kindness Clash carries on himself—when Clash welcomes a young would-be puppeteer to the Muppets Studios, it's one of the film's most moving moments.
Regardless of what one might think of Elmo himself—and there are those who believe the little guy ruined Sesame Street—this is a moving story of a talented artist who made his dreams come true through hard work, natural talent and a genuine goodness of heart. Though marred slightly by some overly precious narration from Whoopi Goldberg, Being Elmo is a simple, lovingly crafted gem.
The Mill Valley Film Festival runs October 6–16. 'Being Elmo' plays Saturday, Oct. 8 at 11:30am and Saturday, Oct. 15 at noon at the Sequoia Theatre. 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. $10. For full schedule, see www.mvff.com.