Early in Being Elmo: a Puppeteer’s Journey, I come to understand why we treasure Elmo. Kevin Clash, the creative genius behind the red furball, is in France to train other puppeteers. They’re doing an exercise where they pantomime without puppets so they can observe their hands. Clash is patient with his students, and wants them to follow his example. Watching his hand without a puppet attached, I realized the magic is in Clash. His graceful movements, not Elmo’s cute eyes, are what give the puppet a soul.
The documentary begins with Clash’s early life and follows him until we understand Elmo’s ubiquity. Clash was a puppeteer at an early age, and crafted seventy-five of them before he even stepped into a TV studio. Under the tutelage of puppet designer Kermit Love and later Jim Henson, Clash grows from an enthusiast into an artist. His moment of inspiration is when he’s pondering the best hook for Elmo and realizes that, simply, Elmo loves us. Truly loves us. The simple impact of such an idea permeates the film, and Clash’s more moving interactions brought me to the verge of tears. Don’t worry: this isn’t merely a sop-fest. Director Constance Marks adds plenty of laughter into the mix, and there are fascinating sections where we learn the day-to-day tasks of a puppeteer’s work.
After the screening, the production team appeared along with Clash and Elmo. Clash tells us his entirely family is in the audience (he’s from Baltimore), and this is the first time they’ve seen the completed film. Everyone – the audience, Clash and his family, Marks and her family, even Clash’s bright young pupil – are all smiles. And before the Q&A began, we got to see a glimpse of our favorite puppet. Elmo greeted all the kids the audience (see the video below), I’m sure there were plenty of adults like me who were jealous of their opportunity.