Documentaries like I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story and Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey have already dug into a couple slices of the magic that makes Sesame Street so beloved by children and adults alike. Now Marilyn Agrelo‘s new film Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (inspired by Michael Davis’ book of the same name) goes back to the origins of the groundbreaking series created by producer Joan Ganz Cooney and writer/director Jon Stone, and shines a light on the hurdles, milestones, and memorable moments that have turned Sesame Street into a worldwide sensation beloved by millions.
Sesame Street has been a staple of childhoods for 50 years. But before the educational television series from the Children’s Television Workshop came along, the entertainment available to children was nothing more than junk food programming meant to sell toys and candy. That’s where Joan Ganz Cooney comes into play, who realized that television could be used to educate kids instead of just keeping them occupied for hours on end. With the help of various experts, academics, and educators, Cooney figured out what kind of things children liked to see on television and then sorted out what would be good for them to watch. It sounds like a simple concept, but in the 1960s, no one was trying to use television in such a way.
Through a plethora of behind-the-scenes clips, talking heads, and plenty of archival clips, Marilyn Agrelo gives us the history of Sesame Street. You’ll learn about where the street-level setting came from and witness the misstep of early episodes that didn’t test well with audiences when they kept The Muppets separate from the human characters. There’s also plenty of retrospective feedback from those who were there in those early days, including a hilarious blunt bit from longtime camera operator Frank Biondo, who talks like a cartoon New Yorker in the most entertaining way possible.
While it’s fascinating to learn where Sesame Street came from, the best part of Street Gang is watching it come together. Seeing clips of Jim Henson (Kermit the Frog, Ernie), Frank Oz (Grover, Bert), and Carol Spinney (Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch) working with their puppet counterparts will warm your heart. Then they’ll crack you up when you get to see outtakes where the cast stays in character, apologizing to the camera and sometimes uttering inappropriate improvised lines that would never make it into the show. Then there are the flashback clips featuring guest stars like Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Jesse Jackson, and many more.
More wonderful details come from interviews with songwriters Joe Raposo and Christopher Cerf, discussing the inception of certain musical interludes, including brief dive into one of the show’s most important songs, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” The latter appears through new interviews, but the former appears courtesy of a revealing archive interview since Raposo unfortunately passed away in 1989, one year before the death of Jim Henson would take away another one of the show’s masterful talents.
Human cast members like Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orrman, Emilio Delgado, and Sonia Manzano also make appearances, calling attention to the show’s diversity and barrier-breaking assembly of talent. Not all of Sesame Street‘s efforts were celebratory, though, and the documentary is sure to make note of some of the resistance the series faced, whether it was from racist citizens from Mississippi who were put off by the integrated cast, or from Black viewers who balked at the creation of the Muppet named Roosevelt Franklin, a culturally Black character (who appeared magenta) created and voiced by Black cast member Matt Robinson that was deemed to be too much of a stereotype by some.
There is one shortcoming that Street Gang can’t quite get around, and it’s missing people who simply aren’t here anymore. Brian Henson and Lisa Henson attempt to fill the gap left by their father’s absence, as do Polly Stone and Kate Stone, sitting in for the late Jon Stone, who passed away in 1997. But they can only provide so much perspective from their time as children and teens during the show’s rise to prominence. Also notably missing is Frank Oz, who is still very much alive, but doesn’t appear in the documentary.
The only other complaint that I have about Street Gang is that it left me wanting more. An entire series could be dedicated to the impact this show has made, and I would soak it all up. Street Gang includes important milestone moments that Sesame Street brought to television, such as the heartbreaking sequence where Big Bird tearfully learns about death after the passing of Mr. Hooper actor Will Lee in 1982 and sparked a teachable moment for children (and it will make you cry all over again). But I would have liked to see more of those historic kind of moments specifically remembered, especially since the series only chronicles the success and influence of Sesame Street up until the death of Jim Henson. That leaves 30 years unexplored where Sesame Street has done plenty of additional innovative things to teach children about the world around them.
Despite leaving plenty more to shine a light on, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is still a satisfying and entertaining look at one of the most important and influential television shows of all time. It follows in the footsteps of the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? by shining a light on the making of the iconic series, revealing things you may not have known about its creators, and bringing some good old fashioned nostalgia to your heart. It’ll make you want to go back to Sesame Street all over again.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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