Not everyone’s life is compelling enough to warrant the documentary treatment, but whether this truism applies to master puppeteer and current Sesame Street producer Kevin Clash is a question that Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Constance Marks’s fawning portrait of the Muppet-master fails to answer. That’s because rather than shape her subject’s life into any sort of tension-filled narrative, the film moves from high to high, notching off Clash’s escalating career triumphs (a hit show on local Baltimore TV, a stint on Captain Kangaroo, the creation and enduring popularity of the eponymous furry red creature) with the same inevitable good vibes that characterize the children’s television program in which the puppeteer has staked his career.
To be fair, Marks and her screenwriters avoid the potential pratfalls of that most obvious narrative trajectory: poor black kid escapes from working-class nowheresville through the power of his art. But scarcely any mention is even made of Clash’s race, and surely the biggest obstacle he had to overcome wasn’t merely being teased a little bit in school for preferring puppet-making to basketball. Cutting back and forth between the story of his meteoric rise—told both through Whoopi Goldberg’s narration and talking-heads interviews with friends and family, all of whom agree that Kevin’s just the best—and a look at the puppeteer working on various consulting projects, the film feels puffed up at 76 minutes, likely the result of the director not wanting to dig too deep either into its subject’s personal travails or into what constitutes the art of the puppeteer.
This last line of inquiry, when it does emerge, provides the film with its sole scenes of interest, whether in observing Clash instructing the crew of the French Sesame Street on small gestures that help bring pieces of felt and cardboard to life, or in archival footage of the subject as a teen, showing us his then-rudimentary stitching methods and the various voices he’s created for his puppets. No doubt a man of prodigious talents in his field (a point the film insists upon, but one that we can observe clearly enough for ourselves), Kevin Clash fails to hold the screen as either a telegenic presence or as someone whose story is worthy of 76 minutes of anyone’s time. At the end of that hour-plus, we know little about what makes Clash tick or the tensions that drove him to succeed; all we know is that he’s good at what he does, and as a result, successful. That makes for a nice story. But in Clash’s suggestion, in a bit of commentary to an aspiring puppeteer, that anyone can make it big just like him, he takes a special case and applies it to a universal affirmation of the American dream. That makes for a big lie.