Back when I was just young enough to be watching Sesame Street, the star attractions were Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Bert and Ernie. No-one back then had even heard of Elmo, let alone thought that he might spawn spin-off movies and the most sought-after merchandise of several consecutive festive seasons - and in doing so generate money in numbers beyond even the Count's wildest dreams. Elmo, an impulsive, affectionate red-furred critter with ping-pong balls for eyes, became so adored so quickly that it's tempting to label him the Ryan Gosling of the Children's Television Workshop: the cloth cut who seemingly came out of nowhere to throw his arms around the world.
Constance Marks' new documentary Being Elmo, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, profiles both the phenomenon and the man who provides Elmo with his anima and his instantly recognisable high-pitched voice. The stocky, fortysomething Kevin Clash grew up in an underfunded black neighborhood in the back-end of Baltimore, the city now firmly established as the cradle of American cultural diversity: giving rise to Elmo, Omar Little and the movie career of Divine will stick a place with that reputation. But this is Elmo's story, too: a character first tested out by the husky Richard Hunt - the surviving footage is startling, like watching Kristin Chenoweth opening her mouth to sing like Barry White - only to be consigned to the Sesame Street stock cupboard. The backstage drama here is how Clash, after a decade of jobbing puppetry both within and without the Henson empire (Captain Kangaroo, Labyrinth, the long-forgotten The Great Space Coaster), was motivated during one career lull to remove Elmo from mothballs, and thus create something in its own way revolutionary. It's the story of a creative belatedly coming to find his perfect partner, and - through them - the voice that would speak to millions.
Puppetry is an old-fashioned medium, and it's old-fashioned virtues the film accordingly seeks to enshrine: unconditional love and extraordinary belief. Painstakingly hand-sewed (a cashmere coat belonging to Clash's pop takes a hit in a formative anecdote), the puppeteer's creations are stitched with the exact same affection as Aardman's plasticine figurines, and similarly motivated: less out of a desire to get rich quick (Clash only inherited Elmo in his thirties) than a need to get every last gesture right. Clearly, the illusory nature of television - the selective camera angles, the choice editing - can aid the puppeteer, but what's astonishing (and very touching) here is how children react even when Clash is in the room with Elmo, working the magic that obliges them to overlook the presence of his hand around the puppet's nether regions, or to assume he must be Elmo's PA, helper or father. Part of the puppeteer's artform, you realise, is making themselves disappear, becoming a mere observer, and Clash's curiosity - not just around mechanics, but people, too - evidently factors into Elmo's own personality.
As a boy, Clash sat with his nose to the TV screen, gawping at Sesame Street (whose diversity made it the closest thing he could find on the box to his own neighborhood) and later The Muppet Show, trying to figure out how such tricks were performed; his current work is, as he reveals, informed by that which he observes about his fellow humans, such as the way we nod our heads, subtly yet frequently, while listening to one another - the kind of minor detail that, when layered into a routine, can transform Elmo from the merely cuddly to the credible: a friend and companion. The reason millions raced to buy Tickle-Me Elmo dolls was because they bought Elmo, and the values he represents, absolutely: there are, sadly, too few human entertainers who merit that level of trust. I remain, first and foremost, a devotee of the Cookie Monster, whose needs and desires are recognisable to grown-ups as well as kids and hypoglycemic inbetweeners like myself, but - in an age of crushing, often predatory mass-media cynicism - it's good to know our young can still be placed in such safe and skilful hands as Clash's. Elmo is empathy, and this is a great big hug of a film.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey opens in selected cinemas from Friday.