Documentary filmmakers often choose to portray unpleasant topics as the ultimate "reality." Constance Marks' Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey is the complete opposite, a sunny doc about bringing joy and making dreams come true.
The subject of the film is an African-American puppeteer named Kevin Clash, who grew up poor in a disadvantaged section of Baltimore. But he had a single-minded passion: to be a Muppeteer. He began crafting his own pupperts from an early age and progressed to local TV and then to the national spotlight with Captain Kangaroo. Then he finally met his idol, Jim Henson.
Clash auditioned for the chance to embody a new Muppet soon to take center stage on the PBS juggernaut Sesame Street. This furry monster, called Elmo, was a perennial preschooler and would become one of the most popular characters on the long-running educational show. You might say Elmo was the ultimate in successful colorblind casting: The character transcends race, not black, white or brown, but universally red.
Being Elmo does elide the subject of Clash's personal life, but perhaps that is simply the too-common conflict between the demands of being in the spotlight and commitment to spouse and family. Clash himself is revealed on camera as a gentle soul, as kind as his alter ego. He is respectful and appreciative of the generous mentoring he received as a young man and clearly invests his time in passing the torch to a new generation of puppet performers.
At the Full Frame screening of the film earlier this year, Clash not only brought Elmo but stayed after the screening for more than an hour to allow fans to have their photo taken with the world-famous Muppet. Elmo is warm, curious and affectionate, seemingly a reflection of the talented artist who supplies his voice.