Monday, May 02, 2011

IFFBoston 2011 Opening Night: Being Elmo

Man, if this is just getting up today, I fear for how long getting the rest up will take!

I don't see movies multiple times when they're on the festival circuit, so I haven't yet caught a fillmmaker telling two separate audiences that they're the best. I don't doubt that the emotion, at least, is true most of the time, and I'm not sure how you differentiate between them other than the obvious - those French audiences that boo, for instance, are likely not going to be anyone's favorites.

This comes up because director Constance Marks and company made frequent comments about the IFFBoston audience in Somerville being the best, and while I'm sure some of that is playing to the crowd, I wouldn't be surprised if there was a little more to it than that. After all, about midway through the movie, there was a real frisson of excitement and anticipation when Kevin Clash started talking about Henson & Oz calling him to work on The Dark Crystal, and disappointment when he ultimately didn't take the job because it would mean quitting the ones he had at the time. This audience, perhaps more than the ones at Sundance and SXSW, dug puppetry enough that a sizable chunk found The Dark Crystal really cool; it wasn't just parents taking their kids to "the Elmo movie".

There were a fair chunk of those, of course, and that was a great demonstration of how the people involved knew how to work an audience: After the movie, Kevin pulled Elmo out of his bag and asked all the kids to come up to the stage so that Elmo could say hi and give them hugs. Then, the kids could go home and to bed, and Elmo went back in the bag while Clash, Marks, and company answered questions about the movie and the stuff that wasn't covered in it.

Then, after that, Elmo came back out to participate in the Q&A himself. As I mention in the movie's review, it's a real testament to Kevin Clash's skill as a puppeteer that you can see how he manipulates Elmo and still see the character as an individual. It's also fun to see the way Elmo changes when he's not on a Sesame Street segment; he's a little more of a troublemaker and wiseguy. He does a great Barry White impression on demand, and in a way he's Kevin Clash less filtered.

My favorite bit, just because it would please my neice, came when someone asked the best and worst parts about being on such a popular TV show: "What's he talking about? Elmo's not on a show, Elmo just lives on Sesame Street!" (Amazingly cute fawning for the camera) "But Oscar can be difficult."

So, here's some pictures, and the start of the review underneath. I apologize for how the camera on my Droid isn't really that great; sometime, I'll have to get a real one.

Clash & Marks
Director Constance Marks and Kevin Clash

Elmo greeting kids
Elmo greeting kids on stage

Puppets and puppeteers
A young fan shows Kevin Clash & Elmo his puppet.

Q&A w/ Constance Marks, Elmo, Kevin Clash, and cinematographer James Miller (l-r). Yes, Elmo has his own guest badge that says "Cast & Crew: Elmo".

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (IFFBoston 2011)

I don't have kids of my own, but I have a four-year-old niece, and Elmo sort of drove her parents up the wall, at least for a while. Something about the high voice, the talking in the third person, and utter omnipresence of the energetic, almost aggressively friendly little red monster makes him connect to kids like few other Muppets have, but at the same time makes adults grumble about how in their day, Sesame Street's Muppets weren't so one-note. There were more sophisticated and less annoying characters, like Grover. Being Elmo won't necessarily change that opinion, but it will at least let them appreciate Kevin Clash, the performer who brings him to life.

Like many a parent of Elmo's fans, Clash watched Sesame Street as a kid too, sharing a small house with four siblings in Baltimore. As much as the characters delighted him, he was just as curious as to how the puppets were made and how they worked, and it wasn't long before he was cutting up his father's trenchcoat for materials to make his own. He had a talent for it, and it wasn't long before he was doing shows for his mother's day care kids, then in the parks, and then on local television. He also got to meet two important mentors - Kermit Love, the Santa-bearded puppetmaker who showed him some of the tricks of the trade, and Jim Henson. He'd go through a number of different jobs before landing on Sesame Street, developing a few characters that didn't quite connect (the most notable probably being Hoots the Owl) before picking up a red puppet that veteran puppeteer Richard Hunt just couldn't make work.

Much of Being Elmo is a "local boy makes good" story, and it's a very pleasant and well-made example of the genre. The filmmakers are very fortunate in a number of ways: Their subject is an open, friendly person who never seems to be holding back but brings out extra bits of himself when performing. He's humble and self-deprecating but takes pride in his accomplishments. While some important figures like Love and Henson are sadly no longer with us, Clash's parents are, and the time we spend with them certainly backs up another mentor's claim that they are the inspiration for Elmo's boundless energy and love. Director Constance Marks and the other filmmakers were able to dig up some impressive material from the archives - it's really an incredible stroke of luck that a visit by Clash to Love's workshop as a teenager was recorded for a TV show.

Full review at EFC.

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