Director: Marilyn Agrelo
Based on the book by: Michael Davis
Producers: Trevor Crafts, Lisa Diamond, Ellen Scherer Crafts
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 107 mins
Sesame Street is a show that stands apart from any other achievement in TV history as a remarkable, unique and miraculously perfect piece of work. I consider it not only the greatest children’s TV show of all time but very probably the greatest TV show of any kind. This trailblazing series began in 1969 as an experiment in using TV to educate children. Devised by producer Joan Ganz Cooney and experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, founders of the Children’s Television Workshop, a non-profit organisation designed to develop educational TV shows, Sesame Street went through years of pre-production workshops, research and testing sessions in order to achieve an unprecedented hour-long show that could hold children’s attention for long enough to educate them without ever being patronising or obvious. A key decision in ensuring Sesame Street‘s long-running success was the masterstroke of getting Jim Henson on board. His Muppet characters, still in their infancy themselves, would prove to be the lynchpin of the show, with creations like Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, Count von Count and Oscar the Grouch being taken to the nation’s hearts. These timeless creations shared adventures on the titular street with a range of human characters representing a wide range of age groups, ethnicities and physical abilities.
It wasn’t just the Muppets that made Sesame Street so fantastic though. Previous documentaries I’ve seen on the subject of the show have often made it look like exclusively a Jim Henson production, focusing solely on his characters and not the show’s other intricacies or the creative geniuses who shaped the vision. Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street eschews this populist approach to finally give a clear, thorough depiction of the origins of this milestone show. Of course, Henson and his Muppet characters play a huge part but it’s refreshing to see as much emphasis placed on trailblazers like Cooney or producer Jon Stone. Street Gang also takes the time to establish the political and social context that made Sesame Street necessary, without drawing attention away from the main subject. That Sesame Street was innovative and massively effective from an educational standpoint has been well established but Street Gang also focuses on the racial and economic backgrounds of Sesame Street’s main target audience, inner city children, and the obstacles that this unprecedented approach caused in the comparatively unenlightened 70s.
The problem with any documentary tackling such an important show that has been running for decades is length. There’s simply too much to pack into a reasonable runtime and I’ve always thought a 10 hour mini-series would be needed to properly do the series justice. Street Gang gets round this issue by wisely picking a specific angle and sticking with it. The key is in its subtitle How We Got to Sesame Street. The film focuses largely on the early years of the show, its development, establishment as a cultural phenomenon, and the people who were instrumental in laying that groundwork. Given how dominant and popular the character of Elmo became in later years, few previous looks at the show’s history have dared to leave him out but “the red menace” (as overzealous Sesame Street purists came to call him) is nowhere to be seen here. It’s a wise move as cursory mentions of these later developments would only serve to make the film seem incomplete, whereas its tighter focus gives it a more well-rounded feel.
There are parts of Sesame Street that I love that are given very little time. In particular, as an animation enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated by the wonderful animated segments and the animators who created them. We do see snatches of some of the more popular examples, such as the counting pinball machine or the red typewriter, but there’s no real mention of their production or importance. Again, this is probably necessary given Street Gang’s carefully established focus and the need to not deviate from that. A 10 hour mini series could potentially devote a good half hour to this subject but for now my hopes on this front were dashed. But Street Gang does spotlight plenty of individuals who are often overlooked, notably composer Joe Raposo. Classic songs are often highlighted in other documentaries but Raposo often goes uncredited, something which Street Gang corrects. In particular, the classic ‘Bein’ Green’ is heralded as a uniquely political, multi-layered gem that can be appreciated as a comment on racial identity as much as, or even more than, simply a frog’s melancholy musings.
When making a Sesame Street documentary, many filmmakers would be tempted to simply make a greatest hits style story. There are several key moments most fans will have seen before here, including snatches of the original pitch tape and the episode in which Mr. Hooper’s death was tackled head on, but there are new insights about them and honestly, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t in there. They are, after all, important landmarks and Street Gang is designed to enchant newcomers as much as devotees. But alongside these classic moments are plenty of lesser-known pieces of footage from the early years, including glimpses behind the scenes and some very funny outtakes.
Street Gang is a joyous experience but it doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of the story like Jon Stone’s ongoing battle with depression or the accusations of racism levelled at the early character Roosevelt Franklin. Ultimately, Street Gang wraps up with several deaths of key players, including Henson’s tragically early demise and the oft-seen but never less moving scenes of his funeral. This is the natural way for the story to end but Agrelo is careful to return to the light after showing the shade, closing on the perfect reflection on this incredible show’s impact: that while its creators may not all still be around, Sesame Street is immortal. Neither the child in me nor the adult I’ve become can give this any fewer than 5 stars.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is released on digital download on 31 January 2022.