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Sundance 2021: “Street Gang” is a joy for Sesame Street fans

Sundance Street Gang

Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary soaks you in the warm bath of nostalgia for Jim Henson’s long-running Muppet masterpiece.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

For most people—yours truly included—it will be impossible to look at Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street in a completely objective manner. From the moment it debuted in 1969, it has changed and influenced the ways in which children learn—largely for the better—and continues to do so more than a half-century later. Who among the show’s generations of fans wouldn’t want to see a film charting how the show came to be and featuring a generous helping of beloved clips and behind-the-scenes footage to boot? Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary provides all that and more. While the end result may not revolutionize the documentary form in the way that the show shattered notions of what could be accomplished in children’s television, viewers will presumably be too content to soak in the warm nostalgia bath in front of them.

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Michael Davis, the film recounts the evolution of the show through a combination of archival footage and interviews with many of the surviving key players. For creator Joan Ganz Cooney and director Jon Stone, the impetus of the show was to create a program for kids that, unlike the vast majority of original kid-related programming at the time, was not merely a vehicle to sell cereal, toys, and other crap to young viewers.

Noticing just how powerful of an influence that television was having on kids—they learned to sing beer jingles from the commercials—they endeavored to create a program that would use the techniques that Madison Avenue used to push products to sell young children on things like counting and the alphabet. Before long, they made the key recruitment of Jim Henson, a puppeteer and commercial maker who knew how to put forth an idea quickly and cleanly and whose offbeat sense of humor dovetailed nicely with the show’s politely radical (at least for the time) sensibility.

The combination of silly/smart humor and its non-condescending attitude made the show an instant smash hit with both its target audience and older viewers alike. (Sonia Manzano, who would go on to play Maria on the show, recalls the show being popular with her college classmates). Like any show, there were some initial growing pains and the film does pause to mention them. There was the refusal by public television stations in Mississippi to air the show during its first season, essentially because they feared viewers would rise up in anger at the notion of a children’s show featuring an overtly multi-ethnic cast. They soon caved but an attempt to bring in a more overtly black character in the form of Roosevelt Franklin misfired, a move that would eventually lead to the departure of Matt Robinson, the character’s creator and the first person to play live-action character Gordon.

Street Gang is not the complete soup-to-nuts accounting of the Sesame Street story that fans might have been hoping for.

For the most part, however, the film focuses on the good times and indeed, there are plenty of beloved moments from the early years on display and we also get a taste of the astonishing array of guest stars that the show over the years—everything from Jesse Jackson leading kids in a chant of self-affirmation to such musical guests as Cab Calloway, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash, whose cheerfully mordant tone finds great favor from Oscar the Grouch.

There’s also a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage showing Henson and his army of Muppeteers going through their paces and somehow making it all look easy. Best of all, there are plenty of bloopers in which the Muppeteers pull off the impressive trick of cracking wise when something goes wrong but doing so in a way that is still in character. (If the film is somehow in need of an effective tag line to help sell itself, perhaps the words “Oscar Swears” will work.)

Street Gang is not the complete soup-to-nuts accounting of the Sesame Street story that fans might have been hoping for—it focuses almost exclusively on the show’s first couple of decades and doesn’t really touch on how it has changed and evolved with the times without losing sight of its original objective. (Translation—Elmo is viewed for only a split-second during a rehearsal bit.) Those hoping to get some insight into how some of the characters were developed will be disappointed to find that there is little of that—of course, with the passing of Henson and Caroll Spinney (who played both Big Bird and Oscar) and the absence of Frank Oz save for archival footage, that was perhaps inevitable.

That said, Street Gang is nevertheless a sweet and highly watchable celebration of a pop culture fixture that is actually deserving of such veneration. And yes, when the film shifts to tell the story of how it elected to deal with the death of beloved cast member Will Lee—Mr. Hooper—by using it as a way to educate youngsters about the concept instead of avoiding it altogether, even the grouchiest of viewers may find that the dust quotient in the room where they are sitting has grown exponentially.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street played in the Premieres category of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.