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Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey: movie review

Constance Marks's sprightly documentary tells the heartwarming story of the man behind the furry red face.

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Elmo's human counterpart Kevin Clash (r.) gets the spotlight in the new documentary 'Being Elmo.'

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Even adults find it easy to imagine that puppets are self-sufficient beings untethered to human hands. Who really thinks of Miss Piggy or Kermit as a patch of foam and fur being manipulated off-camera by a grown-up with a funny voice?

The greater the illusion the greater the manipulator, and few are as good as Kevin Clash, the subject of Constance Marks's sprightly six-years-in-the-making documentary "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey."

Clash, who idolized the Muppets on "Sesame Street," started out making his own puppets as a teenager in Baltimore in the 1970s. He eventually got a job with Jim Henson, re-inventing Elmo from his initial grunty caveman persona to the cuddly love magnet of today. Clash is now billed as "Senior Puppet Coordinator and Puppet Captain" for "Sesame Street." It must be cool to have people refer to you as a puppet captain.

If this film is to be trusted, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. For someone who rose so rapidly in the ranks of puppetdom, Clash comes across as remarkably genial and unassuming (even though he has the physique of a linebacker). Marks has located much video footage of Clash as a teenager performing for local audiences and television stations. His doting, hugely supportive parents are interviewed. (As a boy, Clash once cut up his father's jacket to fashion a puppet. "Next time ask first," was his father's only rebuke.) There's even film of him visiting for the first time as a teenager the legendary Muppets designer Kermit Love, who does indeed look, as Clash says, "exactly like Santa Claus."

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