A loving exploration of a revolutionary American institution
I doubt there isn’t an American alive who hasn’t been touched by Sesame Street in one way or another. Whether they watched it as children or have put it on for their own, the iconic series has found its way into the public consciousness in ways few other properties have. In fact, the show feels so iconic that is seems almost taken for granted when thinking about how pioneering it actually was after being a part of the social fabric for so long. When I think of Sesame Street, I recall how the likes of Johnny Cash and Julia Roberts allowed themselves to let down their public guards and just be goofy as they interacted with Elmo and Oscar, showing how the power of the show turned everyone into kids. Now, documentary filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo has released Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, a new documentary which takes a look back at the show’s early beginnings, its creators and the influence it continues to have.
In spite of going to proper lengths of tracing the incredible efforts and challenges faced in bringing Sesame Street to the small screen, there’s very little which sets Street Gang apart as a documentary. Yes, key elements including how show dealt with the death of a cast member, as well as the backlash brought on by some of the southern states are touched on. Yet the whole affair is largely a talking head style effort which involves plenty of the key players involved with the show as well as their descendants. They’re accompanied by lots of genuinely amusing archival footage which pulls back the curtain on how the puppets were created and brought to life. It’s all relevant and quiet interesting stuff that really does pay an honest tribute to a show which deserves every bit of praise it’s bestowed. It just doesn’t feel all that special. For as magical and invigorating as Sesame Street was to us as children, it feels that this show deserved a more cinematic way of having its story told.
What Street Gang does best is showcase the three visionaries behind the show’s conception, each of whom could proudly claim to have had an influential hand in bringing Sesame Street to life. There’s Joan Ganz Cooney; one of the few women TV producers who couldn’t help but see how certain commercials were being geared towards younger viewers and who firmly believed that an entire program combining both education and entertainment would score with children. Meanwhile, it was producer Jon Stone, struck by the turmoil of late 60’s American society, who felt that such a program should spotlight inner-city children who up to that point, didn’t enjoy much representation anywhere. Finally, it was entertainer Jim Henson’s knack for puppetry, voices and tongue-in-cheek comedy which made him the perfect creative genius to help populate the show with many of the iconic characters known today. If nothing else, Street Gang does a thorough and loving job at showcasing these three visionaries, how their sensibilities combined and conspired to create a piece of art which would have a long-lasting effect on American culture.
Even if Street Gang doesn’t re-invent the wheel as a documentary the way something like Won’t You Be My Neighbor did, that’s perfectly fine. What Agrelo does accomplish with her film is drive home the point about how iconic the series was and how it shaped society in ways none of its creators could have ever foreseen. It was one of the first shows to teach children how they were both different and equal and it always treated its young audiences in ways which never seemed condescending. The documentary shows the groundbreaking way in which Sesame Street blended humor and knowledge through methods which are now considered the standard. Above all, the film makes the point that through an assortment of unforgettable characters, the show sought to genuinely make the world better. It’s easy to assume that the lessons learned watching Sesame Street have left some people as we watch the kind of social and cultural division that was around before the show’s debut unfold once again across the country. Even so, it shows how vital and important an entity Sesame Street still remains.