It makes perfect sense that there’s now a documentary about the long-running children’s television series “Sesame Street.” After all, there’s already been a doc about the puppeteer who played the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on that show (“I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story”), and one about the man who played Elmo (“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”) — while “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s 2018 film about another children’s TV icon, Mister Rogers, recently became the 12th highest-grossing nonfiction film of all time.
So what took so long to make “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street?” Marilyn Agrelo’s film premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival on Saturday morning, joining this year’s Sundance docs “Summer of Soul” and “Rebel Hearts” and last year’s “Crip Camp” as a celebration of revolutionary work that came out of a tumultuous period in American life 50 years ago.
It’s a sprawling chronicle of the public television show that decided to teach children rather than just sell to them, which means that it doesn’t have the advantage of being able to focus on one compelling central character the way “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” could. Instead, it follows an array of figures who helped create “Sesame Street”: TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney, who came up with the idea; writer-director Jon Stone, a central creative force in making the show who did so while battling lifelong depression; Jim Henson, a brilliant puppeteer who’d been concentrating on sophisticated adult comedy and oddball ad campaigns until he and his Muppets were dragged into the world of children’s television; songwriters Joe Raposo and Christopher Cerf, who brought surprisingly sophisticated music to kids’ TV; and the assorted human cast members who made the show so multicultural that Mississippi Educational Television initially refused to show it.
Agrelo, best known for 2005’s “Mad Hot Ballroom,” does an exemplary job of storytelling as she corrals this saga into about 100 minutes and sums up just how groundbreaking the show was. “We thought we were changing children’s television,” Cerf says at one point in the film. “But I don’t think any of us thought, ‘Oh, my God, we’re changing the world.'”
At first, though, it was just a wild idea from Joan Cooney, who took note of the work of Carnegie Corporation psychologist Lloyd Morrisett on the differences in learning between Black and white children. She came up with a plan of sorts: figure out what children like to watch on TV, figure out what would be good for them to watch and then put the two together.
It was easier said than done. But with a group of television producers and writers, plus academics and educators, they created the Children’s Television Workshop, which prior to launching “Sesame Street” was a real workshop. Their idea was for a show that would be specifically aimed at inner-city children, and would use advertising techniques not to sell products but to promote learning. (The Muppets helped with the learning and the entertainment.)
The show hit the air in 1969 and, before long, a young James Earl Jones appeared on the program reciting the alphabet with the utmost gravitas; Stevie Wonder dropped by the set, which was designed to look like a Harlem street, to sing for the kids; Jesse Jackson led the multiracial cast in the cast in his “I am somebody” chant; Orson Welles went on “The Dick Cavett Show” and said “Sesame Street” was the greatest show to ever appear on television; and Muhammad Ali sang its praises as well.
“Street Gang” hits the highlights and the rough spots, from the remarkable comic chemistry of Henson and Frank Oz as they performed Bert and Ernie to the journey of original “Sesame Street” actor Matt Robinson, who left the show after his Black character of Roosevelt Franklin was phased out when it drew criticism for reinforcing Black stereotypes.
With a lot of ground to cover, Agrelo tells the story and stays out of the way. She has interview footage from nearly all of the central figures in the story, though clearly some of it is archival rather than new — and, in some cases, she augments older interviews with testimony from the children of Jim Henson, Jon Stone and Matt Robinson, among others. (The children’s accounts are particularly useful in detailing the brutally workaholic schedules of the show’s creators: “He would go to work and come back four days later,” Brian Henson says of his father.)
Perhaps surprisingly, “Street Gang” takes on a melancholic air after a while. It starts with the 1982 death of actor Will Lee, who played shopkeeper Mr. Hooper and whose passing prompted the show to deal with death on the air, a daring move at the time. But from that point on, the theme song of the film seems to become Raposo’s gentle and curiously haunting “Bein’ Green,” which was written as an amusing lament of sorts for Kermit the Frog (“it’s not easy being green”), but which became a subtle and poignant anthem that could encompass everything from racism to self-acceptance.
The story ends, essentially, with Henson’s death in 1990 at the age of 53. Raposo’s death the year before and Stone’s a few years later go unmentioned, but we feel the end of an era, and the film doesn’t follow “Sesame Street” into the 21st century. (The series is still making new shows but now for HBO Max rather than public television.)
Even as it concludes on those notes of sadness and grace, “Street Gang” remains appropriately celebratory and thoroughly entertaining. Let’s face it, blooper reels in which Muppets blow their lines and curse will always be priceless.
By the way, stick around for the entire credits. If Paul Simon being upstaged by a young girl on “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” doesn’t get you, a group singalong to Ernie’s big sax number “Put Down the Duckie” certainly will.
Post-Sundance, Screen Media will release “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in theaters in the spring, after which the HBO Documentary Films production will make its television debut on HBO before streaming on HBO Max.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” opens in theaters April 23 and on demand May 7.