Long long ago, back when the world wasn’t a dumpster fire and we lived in a blissful, ‘Baby Shark’-less ignorance, the documentary Street Gang was announced. Adpated from Michael Davis’ 2008 book, it promised to shine a light on the path that lead to Sesame Street back in the late 1960’s, and the show’s earliest years. While identical in name (Davis has a Co-Executive Producer credit) the two are strikingly different in tone, to differing levels of success.
While I loved the book, I remember my main issue being the intense backstory to essentially every single person mentioned, even in passing. It felt like even a producer’s dog walker got some sort of write up. And while it was relatively entertaining, it didn’t help tell the story, so it became a slog to get through. What the documentary does is strips away the fat and focuses on the core team behind the scenes. Which is much more palatable, the issue becomes however that with the short run time, each person in the spotlight only gets a few minutes to themselves.
But the film does a wonderful job in those few minutes, and the people they choose to showcase are a well deserved ensemble. There’s Children’s Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney, director Jon Stone, songwriter Joe Raposo, writer and actor Matt Robinson, and of course, puppeteer Jim Henson.
The choice to spotlight Robinson, the original Gordon, was one of the production teams best choices. While I knew he had created and written scripts for Roosevelt Franklin, I didn’t know the extent of the work he put in behind the scenes. But his work as one of the few African-American’s on television, and what he had to go through in order to be a strong father type figure on the show was just as informative as it was heartbreaking. Props to Joan Ganz Cooney, who, in one particuarly badass moment from the shows earliest days, says to a reporter “There’s no question we’re integrated… we reflect black inner city life, and we’re very proud of that. If that’s our worst sin, I’m happy to be a sinner‘. To see Matt’s widow, Delores Robinson, discuss the impact that Roosevelt’s negative reception and eventual retirement had on him was one of the films strongest and saddest moments. I hope wherever Matt is today, he can rest knowing that Roosevelt is still one of the most beloved characters in the show’s history.
Jon Stone gets a great spotlight too, as they look at his contributions over the many years he worked as a writer and director for Sesame Street. In the initial clips from the film, I figured we’d just see the same clips from an interview Jon did way back when, which are all over the 40 Years DVD from 2009. But the team behind it seem to have trawled through and we’re given a far more indepth look at a man I personally knew very little about. Jon’s children Kate and Polly help to paint a portrait of their father, someone shown to be a creative genius, but not without his temper. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if his anger issues would be brought up, because it’s well documented in various other places. But Street Gang doesn’t shy away from these moments, which is refreshing and puts a realist filter over the nostalgia filter most people would have while watching this. People are human, and it’s nice to be reminded that even the ones we admire can have their flaws but still be incredible.
The best part of Street Gang by far though are the various outtakes and improvised Muppet moments from over the years. Almost every single one of them was new to me, and all of them made me laugh out loud. Whether it be Oscar complaining about his sex life, Kermit gleeful that Gladys has died, or Big Bird wondering ‘where the hell’ his mail went, it was hilarious every time. My favorite has to be when Frank Oz as Bert stuffs up a line, and Jim Henson’s Ernie rides him for it. Then, as the next take begins, Jim mocks Frank by incorrectly doing the line again. It’s a simple moment, one that likely doesn’t translate well when written down, but it shows the effortless chemistry between Jim and Frank. Frank calls it an unrelenting crueltly, a total unwillingness to help the other out while they flounder. It’s fantastic. Just as good is Caroll Spinney, quite late in his life, holding up Oscar who calls him ‘a bastard’. The cheeky little grin Caroll gives afterwards warms my cold heart.
Street Gang does what it can in the 107 minutes it’s given to tell the story of a legacy. While shallow in parts, where it does delve into detail is filled with unseen moments and brand new information, and is a fantastic look into Sesame Street. Each person interviewed brings a perspective that is insightful and different, and each one helps build the story. Make sure you catch it in theaters (if it’s safe), or watch it when it comes out on demand May 7th!
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by Jarrod Fairclough – Jarrod@ToughPigs.com