A young boy says hello to Elmo (operated by Kevin Clash, left) in the documentary. (Submarine Deluxe )
Kevin Clash wasn't the first puppeteer behind "Sesame Street" character Elmo, but he's the one who gave the shaggy red Muppet a falsetto voice and the personality of a sweet toddler — and thus created a superstar for the preschool set. "Being Elmo" is a documentary as gentle as its subject: the story of a boy who realized his dream and, on the film's evidence, received a lot of encouragement and support along the way.
That's not to diminish his focus, hard work and talent. But director Constance Marks emphasizes the smooth ascent of Clash's career and chooses not to dig beneath the surface. Apparently the affable Clash was the first African American puppeteer to join the Jim Henson organization — a fact mentioned only in passing. Not every documentary requires Sturm und Drang, but the film's ratio of adoration to insight can be frustrating.
What Marks convincingly constructs is the portrait of a well-loved child with a clear sense of purpose. Growing up outside Baltimore in the '60s and '70s, Clash wasn't just entertained by "Captain Kangaroo" and "Sesame Street" but fascinated and inspired. He proved to have a gift for the puppet craft — a sort of quantum mechanics of felt, foam and ineffable spark. In his teens he'd already created a stable of characters and soon secured a gig on local TV.
His audience has grown. But the film's most revelatory sequences involve intimately scaled encounters with children, some of them seriously ill. The kids smile, and the emotion in Clash's face requires no explanation.
"Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.