This lovely, heartfelt, and determinedly unchallenging film tells the story of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who breathed life into the Muppet known as Elmo, the red, furry hug-machine beloved by kids around the world.
Directed by near-rookie Constance Marks, the film sees Clash rise from his TV-obsessed upbringing in Baltimore - where he cut apart the fur lining from his father’s best coat to create his first puppet - to the top of his field, working with his idol Jim Henson and the Muppets on Sesame Street. It was here that Elmo would serendipitously enter his life.
Elmo, we discover, was originally conceived as ‘Baby Monster’, with a voice like a Baltimore dock worker. But Clash’s falsetto version and belief that Elmo “should represent love” instantly connected with the children watching at home. Not only did they enjoy the character, but they were also “learning from it” - the ultimate aspiration for any Sesame Street puppet.
Clash is a truly engaging and positive interviewee, and incredible archive footage really brings his story to life, especially an astonishing sequence at Jim Henson’s funeral. There are also some fascinating insights into the puppeteer’s world - Henson’s invisible stitch, drawers full-to-bursting with eyes - from an array of fellow puppeteers, producers and celebrity fans, among them Frank Oz (aka Miss Piggy) and Whoopi Goldberg.
Nothing bad ever happens on Sesame Street, and the filmmakers seem to have subscribed to that philosophy. Perhaps my wish that the director had probed a little deeper into murkier waters is due to cynicism on my part. If so, this film, which highlights how joy and love can have such a positive impact on so many people, could be just the cure for that.
Gentle, sincere, and filled with moments of genuine joy and wonderment, this story of a boy who came to realise his dreams is as good-natured and uncontroversial as Elmo himself.