Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is a marvelous movie. It’s a documentary about Kevin Clash, who became the voice and operator of Elmo, the tomato-red fur ball and emissary of hugs who is without a doubt the most beloved Muppet of his time. That makes the film sound like a cloying kiddie sapfest, but actually it’s a story of obsession. Clash, born in 1960, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in greater Baltimore, and he explains to us how children’s shows like Captain Kangaroo became his entire world. When Sesame Street premiered late in 1969, for Clash it was like a daily visit to Oz. He started to build his own puppets and was consumed by the desire to give them life, and to meet the Wizard himself, Jim Henson.
While still in high school, Clash landed a puppeteering gig on a local TV station, and that became his ticket to Henson’s kingdom. As you get absorbed into Clash’s world, learning about his pursuit of ”the Jim Henson stitch” (an invisible seam, possible only with fleece), or about his way of keeping a Muppet’s mouth open a tad so that it ”smiles,” you begin to see how the deep and magical psychology of the Muppets emerged from the souls of people like Henson and Clash. Clash himself is a paradox: at once tender and guarded, with a glow of sweetness he can’t fully reveal when he’s not being Elmo. He was the first African-American to work as a Muppeteer, and Being Elmo shows you why that mattered: By taking the world’s Muppet love, through Elmo, to new heights, he became the fulfillment of Jim Henson’s soft-cloth version of a rainbow coalition. A