I've always had an affinity for puppeteers. Ever since I was a child entertaining my younger sister by animating her stuffed animals, the ability to turn a lifeless object into something that seemed alert, responsive, alive has always fascinated me. Clearly I'm not alone: Director Constance Marks' documentary "Being Elmo" offers a look into the life of Kevin Clash, the Baltimore man who turned a childhood love of puppets into a career at "Sesame Street," most memorably becoming the puppeteer of Elmo, the ubiquitous Muppet whose childlike wonder is either captivating or utterly irritating, depending on your temperament. The film's a bit too sweet and simple for its own good, but when it pulls back the curtain on how puppeteers do their thing, it has a bit of magic to it.
"Being Elmo" is subtitled "A Puppeteer's Journey," tracing Clash's history as an African-American growing up in Baltimore to the present day as a producer and creative partner on "Sesame Street." Soft-spoken and not particularly drawn to the spotlight, he had a life-changing experience when "Sesame Street" premiered in his youth, obsessed with learning how the Muppet characters were created. (He'd also been a fan of "Captain Kangaroo" for similar reasons.) Following a pretty conventional structure -- famous talking heads (like Frank Oz and Rosie O'Donnell) tell us how great Clash is -- "Being Elmo" is mostly a straight biography of Clash, hitting the highlights of his professional career, which culminated in his extensive collaborations with Jim Henson.
Not unlike the Jerry Seinfeld documentary "Comedian," "Being Elmo" is strongest when it reveals the artistry of a field that many people may not necessarily consider an art form. (Indeed, when Clash was growing up making and animating puppets, he was teased by classmates because he wasn't interested in sports and was instead "playing with dolls.") Watching Clash explain his process of bringing a character to life reveals a lot of joy, love and serious craft that's infectious. Because he himself isn't a gregarious fellow, there's a sense that his work with Elmo and other puppets allows him to communicate with the world in a freer way than he can normally.
That's a really intriguing insight, but a nagging limitation of "Being Elmo" is that it doesn't delve into that (or anything else) too deeply. While it's to Marks' credit that he doesn't trumpet the fact that Clash is one of the few African-American puppeteers working -- which would have made Clash's story more about his race than it is about his talent -- "Being Elmo" seems hesitant to reveal anything that might run counter to the warm, rosy picture it's concocted. For example, only near the end of the film do we learn that Clash has a child with an ex-wife, a rare admission that Clash has a personal life outside of the Muppets. That should create an interesting paradox -- a man who has given hundreds of thousands of kids joy through Elmo was unable to always find that same joy with his own family -- but Marks skirts by it pretty quickly. Too often, there seems to be a belief that if a documentary portrait of an individual examines darker aspects of his life, it's somehow "mean" or "rude" to the subject, when in fact it allows that person to be revealed as a complex, relatable individual. That's not to say that Clash has skeletons in his closet, but "Being Elmo's" unreservedly upbeat tone can feel a bit monotonous at times.
Beyond learning about Clash, though, the documentary is also a nice little snapshot into the inner workings of Henson's company before his death. Clips and anecdotes about Henson, Frank Oz and others remind you all over again how remarkable "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" were and how much creativity and talent went into their making. Henson is set up as the wise old man on the mountaintop whom Clash desperately wanted to work with, and from everything we see in "Being Elmo," that adulation is well-deserved. And then there's the stories of how Clash worked his way up the puppeteer ladder, finding his greatest fame when he reinvented a rejected Muppet named Elmo and turned him into a worldwide sensation. I have to confess I'd always considered Elmo to be overly cutesy -- he's not funny and biting in the way that the best Muppets are -- but Clash's basic decency made me see him in a new light. It's an irony of "Being Elmo" that while we come to understand the puppet, the man who made him live remains a little one-dimensional.