Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Being Elmo (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Who is that man behind the neon red fur? Few know him, but his name is Kevin Clash. He is the voice behind one of the most beloved Muppets of all time: Elmo. Kevin wasn't born in a palacial house in Muppetland. But a little row house near the Patapsco River at Turner Station, nicknamed Chocolate City. 
The grass is  as dry as tumbleweed and the river is polluted. His room is sparse. Kevin becomes drawn to Saturday morning television to escape his mundane surroundings. 
Kevin is aware of two things: He loves performing and has no interest in sports. One day in 1969, he sees the premiere of "Sesame Street" on PBS. By his own admission, he got right up close to the tv. At that moment Kevin knew he wanted to be a puppeteer. And better yet. He wanted to be on "Sesame Street". For Kevin, Sesame Street is an actual place, a vibrant yet elusive neighborhood  of acceptance and imagination, nothing less than Shangri-La.
So begins "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey". It is an honest and warm documentary that will give you a visceral appreciation for puppeteering as much as it will pull at your heart.
Kevin goes against the grain immediately. He cuts up his father's coat  to make his first puppet. Like a Jean-Michel Basquiat of puppets, Kevin is influenced by color and motion as much as Captain Kangaroo. Instead of playing football and zigzagging in the endzone, kevin was making zigzag stitches on his mothers sewing machine. The kids teased him for "sleeping with puppets" and being a girl. 
All he wanted to do was make the seams disappear and wake up in Disneyworld. Kevin leaves paper slips with incantory wishes for The Magic Kingdom wherever he goes, but Sesame Street still  meant The Big City and his hands were nervous and ready.
The startling thing about "Being Elmo" is that the participants in the film eat, breathe and sleep as Muppets. They move within them, they are both their mothers and their twin-spirits.
We meet Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who are as legendary and as enigmatic here as Steve Jobs and Wozniak and as equally compelling. A man named Kermit Love  is here as well, white bearded and jolly, Kermit is half Santa Claus, half Dumbledore---the Zen of Muppetry, teaching Kevin how to move within his own felt. 
Some of the most affecting scenes are when Kevin goes to visit children, bringing along Elmo, who is Kevin's second skin. The kids are transfixed. It is a universal event and a pop culture phenomenon as big as "Star Wars" or Michael Jackson. 
Kevin Clash can't stop being Elmo, he even moves his infant daughter like  a muppet of flesh moving her arms and legs. 
Rather than treating her daughter like a muppet, he is instead moving her like a puppeteer in training. It's never too early to start.
When Kevin is not Elmo, he goes about anonymous and dressed down, he slips by the New York streets without a glance. He needs Elmo but he also needs to be a father and this recognition from him as well as the reaction of the kids getting hugs from Elmo will not leave a dry eye in the house.
Through it all, Kevin keeps moving, seldom seen under the dazzle of  red neon fur, giving one hug at a time.
"Being Elmo" is a portrait of struggle without discontent. It leaps and dances in the eyes with a joyful, humanist honesty and should not be missed.
Write Ian at redty_2005@yahoo.com

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