We were supposed to go see Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey on Friday, but a schedule conflict caused me to have to push it off to today’s screening. As it turned out, that was a fortuitous turn of events, because at the conclusion of today’s screening, we were promised, there would be a Very. Special. Guest. A guest who was, at that very moment, being driven to the theater from the airport.
Now, I haven’t been to a lot of festival screenings — especially family screenings — where everyone in the audience stays for the post-show Q&A, but as the closing credits rolled, no one so much as dashed out for a quick potty run. Everyone was waiting, breathlessly. Would it be … could it be … Him?
And .. it was Him (er, Them?): The Red One and his Voice. Elmo and Kevin Clash. And the crowd, as they say, went freaking nuts.
If you haven’t seen Being Elmo yet, you’re just going to have to take my word on this for now: The experience of seeing this movie is nothing like what you think it will be like, because it really is an extraordinarily crafted piece of documentary filmmaking about a boy who had a dream and how he stuck with his passion until he achieved it. Director Constance Marks uses some very nicely paced storytelling to guide us through the story of young Kevin Clash, who started making puppets at the age of 10 and ultimately came to work for Jim Henson on Labyrinth and Sesame Street, eventually giving voice to Elmo, the little red monster who loves everyone.
One of the things you really come to appreciate watching this movie is the artistry of these muppeteers as they manipulate pieces of foam and cloth, breathing life into the inanimate. Watch Clash as he deftly manipulates Elmo as if the little red puppet is an extension of his own body, using subtle angles of head and body, minute movements of the mouth and eyes, to convey Elmo’s innocent-child personality.
The other thing you come to appreciate — while watching the film, certainly, but even more so if you get to see Clash in person at a Q&A, is how much of the love and warmth that radiates from Elmo and makes him beloved of so many children comes from some place deep inside Clash himself. You know how some people have an almost palpable aura of positive, loving, happy energy? Clash radiates (I swear, very nearly glows with) love and acceptance and happy-happy feelings. He’s a prophet preaching universal love and acceptance through the friendly, accessible form of a furry, smiling, red monster.
Witness Clash as he stands, rather humbly, waiting for the audience to stop applauding and sit down. He politely, affably answers the questions from the adults — no doubt he’s aware of how many of the younger adults in the crowd especially are here because they themselves were once Elmo-loving kids — but all the time his eyes are roving, roving, seeking out the smallest in the crowd.
He’s completely wired into the energy of the wiggly, squirmy little people who’ve already sat through 90-plus minutes of movie largely geared toward the adults who brought them there, and after a couple questions he abruptly stops and says that it’s time for a little meet-and-greet. “But only the littlest ones right now,” he says, “Elmo will talk to everyone outside after, though.”
He makes his way from tiny tot to tiny tot at the front of the theater, patiently posing for photos as nervous, excited parents fumble with their iPhone cameras. Always, Elmo personally addresses his small fans. “Oh, Elmo loves you!” he croons reassuringly to one teary two-year-old. “Can Elmo have a small kiss?” The little girl nods, lower lip trembling, and tentatively kisses Elmo on the cheek. Elmo gently puts a furry red arm around her, and she embraces him fiercely for a brief second before dashing to hide and peek from behind the safety of her mother’s skirt.
Clash fields a few more questions from the adults — a local puppet maker has brought Clash the gift of one of the first puppets she made herself, and he accepts it with grace and a compliment. Over and over, adults just want to thank Clash for who he is and the joy he spreads. Then staffers clear the theater, promising fans reluctant to depart that Clash and Elmo will meet us outside. And so he does.
For the next hour, maybe more, Clash and Elmo are surrounded by a large half circle of adoring fans patiently waiting their turn to have a picture taken. Clash works the group patiently, tirelessly, directing the flow, making people laugh, connecting. He takes one from this side, then one from that. Everyone plays fair and waits their turn, just like we learned watching Sesame Street.
And it’s not just the kids, either. A tattooed, pierced guy wants a pic of Elmo hanging over his inked bicep. Elmo admires his colorfully inked arms, and the guy beams. Again and again, adults and children alike get their turn to get their pics taken with Elmo, and when they leave the inner sanctum of the circle, the crowd parts reverently to let them pass. Their faces are aglow, beaming. It’s as though they’ve just seen, or been touched by, something almost holy.
I watch the flux of fans, taking it all in, fascinated, and then suddenly we are at the inner circle and it is our turn. Clash gently takes my daughter Veda by the hand and leads her to the center of the circle. I tell her brothers to go ahead too, so that we don’t take up four turns with individual pictures. I’m ready to just snap a quick shot and get on our way when James Miller, the film’s DP and Constance Mark’s husband, takes my camera and says “No, no, go ahead, you get in the shot too.”
Suddenly I find myself next to Clash and Elmo. I don’t usually get starstruck, but suddenly I’m five years old, a shy schoolgirl. Sesame Street memories, part and parcel of my own very earliest awareness of a world wider than the place in which I lived, flood through me, and I feel a soul-deep stirring of memory and emotion as everything the words “Sesame Street” evoke rushes through me.
Then Clash is moving me into place, expertly directing the shot. “I know exactly how to do this shot,” he mutters to himself, then tells me quietly, “Scoot right in there like that, keep your arm around them to keep them together like that.” Then: “Smile, Mom!” Elmo chortles encouragingly as Clash drapes him over my shoulder.
I am awed, laugh out loud, delighted, and with a flash of understanding I suddenly get, completely, why a male colleague at Sundance was practically teary and giddy when describing his own Elmo/Clash encounter in Park City, wherein Elmo gave a shout-out on video to the interviewer’s young sons.
Then it’s over, we’re done, we all thank Elmo — and Clash — and he favors us with one last warm, shy smile before moving seamlessly onto the next patiently waiting fan. A neatly dressed, gangly teen steps up and shows Clash a photo of himself at age two or three, posing holding his Elmo doll. Clash poses them so that the boy and Elmo mirror the pose in the old photograph, and the crowd murmurs appreciatively. As the circle parts to allow the young man to leave, he glances back at Elmo and Clash once more, and Clash meets his eye and nods, then Elmo waves and yells, “Bye!” A woman asks to see the boy’s picture and he shows it around, but his own eyes are still fixed on Clash, and they are wet with tears. I gather up my own brood, glowing and giddy with Elmo-love and chattering excitedly about wanting to make puppets when they get home.
But for those few minutes, with everyone smiling at each other and cooperating and feeling good, we were all children again on a sunny day on Sesame Street. Elmo and Clash had taken us in those few moments, to that place “where the air is sweet,” brought the message of love and acceptance of Jim Henson and Sesame Street to that little corner of Seattle Center.
Elmo had worked his magic.