Hot Docs 2011: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Elmo = love. That's the unapologetically uplifting message of Being Elmo, which tells the story of Kevin Clash, the man behind the world's most popular furry red monster. And it's a surprisingly powerful one. 

The film traces Clash's life from his days growing up in Baltimore, idolizing Jim Henson and the other Sesame Street puppeteers. He taught himself to build his own puppets based on what he saw his heroes doing on TV. Eventually he worked his way onto local television and then Captain Kangaroo before he finally got his break with Henson as one of the puppeteers on Labyrinth. From there it was on to Sesame Street itself where a frustrated colleague, Richard Hunt, was fed-up with his own deep-voiced version of Elmo. That gave the up-and-coming Clash his chance to bring his own loving vision to the character. In the film, he recalls Frank Oz teaching him that each muppet should have a central hook (Fozzie is a vaudeville performer; Miss Piggy is "a truck driver who wanted to be a woman"). "I knew that Elmo should represent love," Clash explains, "just kissing and hugging." Children around the world responded.

The most touching part of the film is what Clash — a shy and humble man — has been able to do with that popularity and his remarkable talent. Being Elmo is full of scenes of children's faces lighting up: in the classes he performed for as a teenager, the dying girl he meets through the Make A Wish foundation, the young aspiring puppeteer he tours around the Muppet Workshop just like he got to when he was a kid. It's enough to melt even the most cynical of hearts; two of the filmmakers on stage for the Q&A after the screening admitted that they'd found Elmo annoying before falling in love with him through working on the film. And with Clash's ability to connect with people, it would be hard not to.  Being Elmo left even a theatre full of adults in awe, wiping away their tears.

Being Elmo will be released in theatres later this year. It plays at Hot Docs again tonight at the Isabel Bader Theatre at 7:15 — rumour has it that Clash may be there in person — and then again Sunday afternoon at the TIFF Ligthbox. Only rush tickets are available.

Photo: Still from Being Elmo

You'll find all of our Hot Docs coverage here.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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