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#HotDocs21 Review: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

April 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Based on the book by Michael Davis, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a heartwarming documentary that explores the history of the beloved children’s television show. It also serves as a great reminder of how experimental and, well, revolutionary Sesame Street was for its time, with it being set on a street inspired by Harlem and featuring a fully integrated cast.

The film explores how Sesame Street was specifically developed to meet the educational needs of poor kids in inner city areas, particularly children of colour, who were behind in school compared to their middle class, suburban peers. There was already compelling evidence that children were absorbing what they saw on television, something that corporations had picked up on to sell them products. So the idea was born to use the medium for good, and teach kids the alphabet and how to count in the same way that advertisers were getting them to memorize commercials.

This led to the creation of Children’s Television Network, co-founded by psychologist Lloyd Morrisett and television executive Joan Ganz Cooney, who developed the idea to create an educational children’s program that mixed live action, animation, and elements of the comedic puppet shows that were popular at the time. Coming out of the Civil Rights era, it was also very important to them that the show would have a diverse cast, to properly reflect life in an inner city.

Everything about the show was carefully planned to meet its educational goals. They observed the reactions of young test audiences to gauge how the show was holding their attention and to ensure the right messages were getting through. Initially, the live action and Muppet sequences were separate, but upon realizing how young viewers engaged far more with the non-human characters, they integrated the two. It aired on public television in order to reach the widest possible audience. The show exploded in popularity after it first hit the air in 1969, and became a cultural phenomenon.

Collaborators on Sesame Street included writer and director Jon Stone, who played a key role in establishing the show’s feel and tone, as well as the great puppeteer Jim Henson. Henson was brought on to incorporate his Muppets into the show, felt characters that, at the time, were starring in edgy commercials and late night comedy sketches. The film makes a point of highlighting the great comedic chemistry between Henson and Frank Oz, which really shines through in their performances as Ernie and Bert.

Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch performer Carol Spinney was another key member of the team. We are reminded that Big Bird started out as a dimwitted comic relief character, and that it was Spinney’s idea to have him be more of a sweet-natured, childlike character instead. There is also some discussion of how the two sides of Spinney’s personality were able to come out through Big Bird and Oscar, with the cheerfulness of the former balanced out by the grouchiness of the latter.

The film also touches on the music of composer Joe Raposo, who never wanted to musically talk down to kids, hence the guest appearances from musicians like B.B. King and Paul Simon. In archival footage, Raposo also talks about the lightning bolt of inspiration that led him to write the bittersweet song “(It’s Not Easy) Bein’ Green” for Henson’s Kermit the Frog, which to some represented a profound statement on race.

Director Marilyn Agrelo does a good job of pulling all of this together, providing an engaging overview of the history of Sesame Street. Among others, the film features new interviews with Cooney as well as the adult children of some of the key creatives and cast members, who reflect on what it was like growing up with their parents involved in the show. We also get a bevy of archival footage, including some wonderful behind the scenes clips and a few priceless outtakes. It reminds us just how clever and funny vintage Sesame Street really was, as well as how genuinely heartwarming it could be.

The film mostly focuses on the earlier years of the show (there is no Elmo), up until about Jim Henson’s death. Like the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which explored the surprising legacy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a wonderful film that gives us an even deeper appreciation of this beloved children’s show. It’s incredibly heartwarming to watch, and brought back a lot of good memories.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

The film is part of Scotia Wealth Management’s Big Ideas series, and there will be a live Q&A on April 30th at 7:00 PM with director Marilyn Agrelo and other guests.

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