Movie Review: Being Elmo (2011) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “B” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “B” documentaries I’ve reviewed are BabiesBallerinaBarbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Boredom.

Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Release Date: October 21, 2011
Director: Constance Marks
Production Company: Constance Marks Productions

I grew up in the first generation of Sesame Street viewers.  During my years as a teenager and young adult, I noticed that my childhood show seemed to have been taken over by a tiny, red monster with a high-pitched voice.  Many of the earlier generation held Elmo in scorn, and saw it as a commercial shift in Sesame Street.  But the more I learned about Sesame Street, the more I came to realize that Elmo was actually the perfect character to reach kids watching Sesame Street who were actually younger than the show was intended for in the 60s and 70s.  I also learned that Elmo didn’t emerge from the merchandise department, but had been created organically by a young puppeteer who brought to life a Muppet that older puppeteers had given up on. Being Elmo is the story of that puppeteer, Kevin Clash.

Clash grew up in a working class family in Baltimore and like many of our generation, enjoyed watching Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street.  He grew fascinated with puppetry, learning how to build his own at the age of 10, and entertaining children at his mother’s day care.  On a high school trip to New York City, Clash was able to meet up with puppet builder Kevin Love, who became a mentor to him. As a teenager, Clash performed on local television programs in Baltimore, and then was able to work on Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster. Working on two shows meant that Clash had to turn down Jim Henson when offered a job on The Dark Crystal.  But after the two shows were canceled, Clash was available for Henson’s next offer to work on Labyrinth, and then Sesame Street.

Clash’s rise to success seems to have happened very quickly, as he went from one of the first puppeteer’s on Sesame Street to have grown up watching the show, to operating one of the most successful characters.  Clash seems to be perplexed by the Tickle Me, Elmo mania of 1996, but dedicated to making connections with children through Elmo.  He eventually rises to a senior position on the Sesame Street Muppets’ staff.  The film shows that Clash’s dedication to work meant that he was distant in his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, Shannon. Later scenes show him attempting to reconnect with his daughter.  He also is shown mentoring a young African-American puppeteer, much in the same that he was mentored by Kermit Love.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Being Elmo is presented as an inspirational story (and it is) of a child falling in love with puppetry and pursuing it to a level of success beyond imagination.  But the elephant in the room here is that a year after this movie, Clash resigned from Sesame Street after allegations were made that Clash had sexual relations with teenage boys when they were younger than the age of consent. The charges were eventually dismissed but we have to assume that Clash likely committed offenses that put his life and character in a different light than what we is presented in this film.  The old dilemma of art and the artist rears its head again, as it is simultaneously true that Clash created in Elmo a character that entertained, taught, and inspired millions of people, but also that Clash will never work on Sesame Street again (and he shouldn’t).

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch I Am Big Bird, a documentary about Carol Spinney, the puppeteer who brought Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life for decades.

For a more in-depth history of Sesame Street, read Street Gang by Michael Davis.

Source: Netflix

Rating: ***

2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: I Am Big Bird (2014)

TitleI Am Big Bird
Release Date: 2014
Director: Dave LaMattina & Chad N. Walker

This sweet documentary tells the story of the life, career, and artistry of Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.  The film includes a wealth of archival footage and home movies balanced with interviews with Spinney, his wife Debbie, and his colleagues (I particularly like the Muppet Wranglers).  While a celebration of his art, the film also reveals Spinney’s struggles with anxiety and depression, as well as his isolation from the other Muppet crew (something that is heightened because he is uniquely hidden within his characters Big Bird and Oscar).  At the age of 82, Spinney is the last of the original Muppeteers still working with Sesame Street.  If you love Big Bird and Oscar, you’ll love this movie
Rating: ****

Performance Review: Sesame Street Live – “Elmo Makes Music”

My daughter Kay & I took in the performance of Sesame Street Live – “Elmo Makes Music” at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on April 12 at 5:30.  I am a long time devotee of Sesame Street.  Kay is very fond of Elmo.  It was a match made in heaven.

The basic story is that a new music teacher named Jenny moves to Sesame Street.  Since the truck with her instruments has not yet arrived, the Sesame Street Muppets seek to surprise her by making their own instruments.  A good as premise as any for a series of musical set pieces.  Despite the title, the show is not all Elmo, but an ensemble piece where each of the Muppets gets to perform in pairs and groups.

While there’s some original music for the show, they also do a good job of incorporating songs from the tv show’s 40+ year repertoire (even dusting off some of those late 1970s Sesame Street disco numbers).  Classic songs include “People In Your Neighborhood,” “C is for Cookie,” and “Sing.”  They also include some popular songs like “Rockin’ Robin,” “The Alphabet Song,” and “The Hustle.”  My favorite part was the denouement where the Muppets show off all their homemade instruments in a variation of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music.”  (“Telly is going to add some triangle/All the squares go home!”)

I can’t find the name of the woman who played Jenny, but she brought a lot of enthusiasm and strong singing voice to the show.  She also looked tiny next to these giant Muppets, a reversal of the tv show where Muppets are generally smaller than humans.  Kudos as well to those dancers in fuzzy Muppet costumes for some impressive choreography.  The “All Feets Can Dance” number was particularly memorable.

Speaking of dancing, Kay danced for pretty much the entire show.  So I’d say that the two-year-old demographic enjoyed the show as well.  The only thing that rubbed me wrong was during the intermission when a vendor brought a massive number of balloons to sell in the orchestra.  Not only did they have this clear display of conspicuous consumption, but they didn’t even bring balloons to sell to those of us in the cheap seats in the balcony.  So I had to listen to “I want a balloon” for a long time.

The Real Sesame Street

I have a brilliant idea for a new reality show.

  1. Find some of the people who made appearances as kids on Sesame Street back in the 60’s & 70’s.
  2. Have them move into a set of real row houses on a real street in New York.  They can bring along any family members or companions they chose.
  3. Film them going about their daily routines, work, etc.
  4. At random intervals Muppets will appear to interact with the cast members.

PBS, make it happen!

Sesame Street A-to-Z

For my final post in my series of tributes to Sesame Street on its 40th anniversary, I challenged myself to find a Sesame Street song for every letter of the alphabet.

Of course you always sing the entire alphabet at once:

Or this way:

And you can even dance it out:

Thanks to the Muppet Wiki for helping me find some of these songs.

Sesame Street: COOKIE!

I may identify with Oscar the Grouch, but Cookie Monster is my favorite Sesame Street Muppet of them all.  If you ever meet my mother, ask her to tell you the story of the time I got Cookie Monster dirty.  I’m pleased that love of Cookie is genetic as my son is a big Cookie Monster fan and a Cookie Monster doll is among his favorite toys.

The Mystery Box skit with Kermit shows the comedic genius of Cookie Monster:

Of course there is also the fine dramatic performance of Alistair Cookie and “Conservations With My Father”:

Cookie Monster also knows how to get into the holiday spirit by writing to Santa Claus:

Part 2 & Part 3 of “Cookie Monster Contacts Santa” are also online showing his omnivorous ways.

Cookie Monster is such a presence that he even has his own letter of the alphabet:

By the way, if you’ve heard and spread the rumors that a “politically correct” Sesame Street has turned Cookie Monster into Veggie Monster please read the debunking of this urban legend on the Muppet Wiki and realize that this monster has always been more than just cookies.

Cookie reflects in this interview about his unique eating style:


Sesame Street: Serenading a Grouch

This is the third of my series of tribute posts in honor of  Sesame Street’s 40th Anniversary.

While looking for clips to watch with my son, I noticed a trend of celebrity musicians coming to the Street and singing to Oscar the Grouch.  I have the twin characteristics of identifying with Oscar perhaps more than other Muppet but also liking songs a lot too, so these resonate with me.

Johnny Cash leads things off with “Nasty Dan”:

Billy Joel and Marlee Matlin get really mushy with a Grouch they like “Just the Way You Are”:

Up on the rooftop, James Taylor appreciates “Your Grouchy Face”:

Totally unrelated to Oscar the Grouch, here are three more celebrity musician appearances on Sesame Street that totally rule.

Stevie Wonder rocks the Street with “Superstition,” a rare performance where the lyrics aren’t altered for the kids:

I never liked the original version of this R.E.M. song, but “Furry Happy Monsters” validates its existence:

Finally, there’s Feist’s performance of “1,2,3,4” another Sesame Street version that is an improvement over the original:

Sesame Street @ Your Library

This is part two of my tribute to Sesame Street on its 40th Anniversary.

Sesame Street is an educational program for preschoolers with one goal to help children begin to learn to read.  As a result they’ve been a boon to my profession with sketches that make the library look like a fun place.

Of course, even as Grover extols the virtues of the library, they can’t resist the stereotype of librarians as overbearing shushers:

The exasperation of this librarian is more understandable as Cookie Monster continually asks for things that are not available at the library.  Some library 2.0 types will probably ask themselves “why doesn’t the library have cookies?”:

The whole cast of Sesame Street comes together at the library for an elaborate light opera:

If Gilbert & Sullivan isn’t your thing, you can also rock out in the library:

I know that some readers are probably annoyed about all the book focus in these clips.  Here, Elmo discovers that computers are in the library in your neighborhood:

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