Saturday, October 15, 2011

Movie Review: Being Elmo

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Decided to do something different this week. Instead of the usual Hollywood releases including remakes of The Thing and Footloose, the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) is going on. With the huge slate of films to choose from I chose a film from the first night of the 2011 event. The movie was a biopic of Kevin Clash. Who is Kevin Clash you ask? Well, the title Being Elmo: a Puppeteer's Journey tells you what you need to know about Kevin. Personally, I wouldn’t have known much about this film and Kevin if it wasn’t for Steve Swanson over at The Muppetcast, a podcast dedicated to the works of Jim Henson and the Muppets. Steve has interviewed Kevin on the show which added to my background knowledge and interest of the subject.

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It was the second movie on the HIFF schedule and played to a pretty packed house. The movie isn’t about Elmo, it’s about the man who really brought Elmo to the forefront of the American pop culture scene. Even at the age of eight, Kevin knew what he wanted to be and he followed through on that ambition to become a puppeteer. It’s a trait that only a small percentage of people hold and carry with them to have that fortitude to follow his dream and even a smaller percentage who want to move into the creative arts. While I won’t say that Kevin’s had a charmed life, he’s been surrounded by people who have been willing to help and mentor him. He received a hand up and not a hand out.

For the 76 minutes running time, it just flew by. I will admit that for the majority of the movie I had a lump in my throat. It was totally enthralling to hear about the progression of the skill and desire that Kevin has put towards the craft of both puppet making and puppeteering. This young boy setting out into the world of making the inanimate come to life by taking his father’s coat and turning that into his first creation and then honing the craft with performances in the backyard and at neighborhood events. His parents, especially his father, could have gotten upset over the jacket but instead helped foster Kevin’s desire and ambitions the best they could.

There was a quality about his passion that sadly doesn’t seem to be overflowing in the general public today. I think why I had the lump was that I wish I had that sort of passion in me for everything I do. It’s the kind of passion which just exudes out of every pore and creates an aura that people just know that you know that you know this is where you where meant to be. That’s why when Kevin is puppeting Elmo and the child or person see Kevin right there with his hand inside the puppet their eyes are glued not to the man but to the inanimate shaggy red pieces of material on the end of his hand. The passion had breathed life into what had no presence before captivating individuals.

One aspect of the movie that director Constance Marks brought forward was the mentoring that Kevin received. When Kevin saw Kermit Love on TV, Mrs Clash reached out on Kevin’s behalf and made contact. Kermit Love was a major force in the design of the Muppets. Kermit shared his own love, passion and knowledge when the two met and today Kevin in turn extends his hand to help others who want to get into puppetry. They didn’t seem to put up their shields and flip on protection mode that if I share this method or secret with you the result will harm me in the either now or in the future. It came across as pure joy for Kevin who would either share with someone looking to develop a career as a puppeteer or someone who was already on the staff of Sesame Street.

Success depends on hard work, but sometimes it's a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time. Kevin's greatest creation Elmo, was partially hard work and effort but the door that opened for him to perform Elmo was where luck was a factor. Richard Hunt was originally Elmo but didn't "feel" Elmo so he gave Kevin the chance. Marks shows footage of Hunt as Elmo who sounded like a New York taxi driver with cuts between Kevin and Marty Robinson who was present in the break room when the hand off occurred to tell the birth story of the Elmo that we know today.

The documentary used lots of archival footage from Kevin’s past to mark milestones along the way. From the days of working with Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo in New York to the trips that he makes around the world with Elmo in tow, footage has captured Kevin at work or behind the scenes. Still pictures from friends and family were altered slightly so that instead of the pan and scan to draw your attention to a detail, sections were lifted to give a bit of depth and animated motion to pull your eye where Marks wanted you to go.

There is no rating on this film, but it was definitely G material. It's been making it's way around the film festival circuit and I couldn't find any information for a general release date for theaters, DVD or Bluray. At the film's web site there is a page showing currently planned locations and dates and a button to "Demand it!". If you are excited about the Muppets, the creative arts or puppetry, this is a film for you. To help round out the picture there are interviews and footage with Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Fran Brill and Whoopi Goldberg. As I was leaving the theater I took my audience response form to rate the film and ripped it on number five on the 1-5 scale.

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