A film review by Craig J. Koban May 13, 2021

STREET GANG:

HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET jjj

2021, PG, 107 mins.

 

A documentary by Marilyn Agrelo

There were two reassuring and beloved constants in my childhood life that I always could escape to: 

STAR WARS in the cinemas and SESAME STREET on TV.  

It's almost impossible to overstate what a profound influence that this pioneering children's educational program has had on multiple generations of children since it first aired on November 10, 1969 and went on to spawn well over 4000 episodes since.  Produced by the Children's Television Workshop and created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, SESAME STREET had modest, but far reaching aims: to teach kids and prepare them for elementary school as opposed to peddling merchandise to them (as far too many shows of its early era were guilty of).  Based on the book of the same name by Michael Davis, STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET is a thoroughly captivating and sometimes moving origin account of the intrepid group of creators that had a vision for the show and saw it through to triumphant fruition, but not without some roadblocks and controversy. 

In attempting to engage in some cinematic archaeological work about the show's humble beginnings, director Marilyn Agrela utilizes the standard accouterments of the talking heads/archival footage documentary form, but does so with mostly satisfying and educational results.  Obviously, we get modern day interviews with many of the key cast and crew (including Cooney herself, who looks astoundingly far younger than her 91 years), but the film also employs older interview footage of those no longer with us (including the late, great Jim Henson, whose incalculable contributions to the show are perhaps unequal).  It was Cooney's original mission statement to provide quality programming to the nation's pre-elementary school youth, and to do so while appeasing both children and adult viewers while simultaneously crossing socio-economic divides (which was pretty unheard of for late 60s kiddie TV).  The doc does a good job early on of establishing the troubling milieu of children's television of the 60s, which Cooney accurately reflects was cemented in big commercial networks making ad and merchandise driven product...and product that was largely aimed at white kids.  Cooney laments, at one point, how children of this era were watching TV over 50 per cent of any given waking time during their week.  So, in her mind, why not make it entertaining and highly educational?   

Cooney didn't want to produce another dime-a-dozen, generic show for children that had an unhealthy focus on commercialization.  She wanted a show that would provide beneficial learning tools to help kids from all walks of life to acclimate for school days to come.  More importantly, she wanted to reach inner city children that didn't have the same opportunities as the white affluent.  Making a show of this nature had simply never been thought of or attempted before, meaning that Cooney and her assembled team were facing a daunting challenge from the get-go.  The chosen creative setting was noteworthy: a New York City block with ethnically diverse, everyday people (and one big bird and a particularly grouchy monster living in a trash can), but innovative, outside of the box people were required to bring this all to a reality.  Of course, there were early hurdles, including one amusing revelation from an early cameraman that he simply had no idea what on earth he was shooting, or the fact that when Cooney first met Jim Henson she disapprovingly thought he was a trouble making "hippie." 

 

 

There's ample focus in STREET GANG about Henson's influence on the show (as well as his go-to Muppet partner-in-crime in the equally talented Frank Oz) to bring a new quirky flavor to the educational vignettes via their pupated creations (Big Bird, Burt and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, etc. have utterly been a part of the pop culture lexicon for years).  STREET GANG shows Henson during his pre-SESAME STREET days making eccentric commercials with his Muppets before taking the call of Cooney and her squad.  After watching some of Henson's old black and white ads in the film it's kind of staggering to think how their relatively subversive humor would translate properly to a children's series, but it showed Cooney's unwavering convictions to not take the road most traveled.  There would have to be a human element to the show as well to make it tangibly relatable and grounded, and STREET GANG tracks down many of the surviving performers that played opposite of Henson's immortal Muppets, like Sonia Manzano (who played Maria), Roscoe Orman (Gordon), Bob McGrath (Bob) and Emilion Delgado (Luis), all of whom combined would give the show its desired racially broad look and feel. 

The casting and overall makeup and approach to SESAME STREET segues into some of the nagging controversies that the show found itself embroiled in.  It premiered to raving reviews and mass viewer popularity, but the interracial makeup of the show led to a loathsome move by one Mississippi station to ban airing any episodes, with them incredulously citing that today's children were just not ready to be introduced to minorities and white kids living together in harmony.  This leads into the creation of a black Muppet in Roosevelt, and although the inception and execution of him was noble minded, the new character had a less than sterling reception, which culminated in the original Gordon in Matt Robinson leaving the show and being replaced (he created Roosevelt and exited on matters of pride and principle).  Still, SESAME STREET wholeheartedly deserved props for championing civil rights and equality, which is reflected in a memorable 1972 episode featuring Jesse Jackson (who bares an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Mackie) leading a mixed group of children chanting "I Am Somebody!"  Pretty moving. 

Still, there were other behind the scenes controversies, like one revolving around a seemingly innocuous musical segment about the letter B that was a clever spoof of The Beatles' "Let It Be" that later sparked a preposterous $5 million lawsuit from Northern Songs (who then had the rights to the tune).  But there were other darker undertones to the show, most specifically in the area of the arduous daily grind of producing it, which took a hellish toll on many of the creators and cast members (Brian Henson is interviewed at one point and almost tearfully recounts how he would go several days as a child without ever seeing his dad).  Aside from the fatiguing extremes of shooting the series and the punishing effects that it had on families behind the scenes, SESAME STREET was also forced during its history to address actual loss and death on their show when one of their beloved recurring characters in Will Lee's Mister Hopper died in real life (instead of hiding it away from children, the makers decided to tactfully deal with it on a 1983 episode that explored Big Bird learning about the realities of Hooper's demise).  Moments like this were ultimately reflective of Cooney's original mandate of the show to not condescend to its young viewers. 

STREET GANG covers a staggering amount of historical ground, players, and events that, to its discredit, feels kind of padded and truncated to meet the demands of its relatively sparse 107 minute runtime.  It should also be noted that the doc only really covers the first ten-plus years of the show, so for those expecting a more long-term and cumulative portrait of the whole, overarching history of the show may be in for some disappointment.  It's sometimes hard to overlook how insufficiently short STREET GANG is considering the vastness of its subject matter.  Having said that, thoroughly probing the sheer magnitude of this series and what it meant for five decades worth of children within a feature documentary length of under two hours is, to be blunt, impossible.  I could have also used a bit less softening of the edges of the ongoing grind that typified making this show.  I wouldn't say that STREET GANG falls short as a warts and all expose, but there's a lot of tougher material here that seems glossed over.  The doc features, at times, some side splitting outtakes of Henson, Oz and company having their Muppets spouting out innuendo laced zingers after flubbing lines or missing marks.  I have to imagine that making these puppets work was mentally and physically taxing, but STREET GANG seems to imply that the daily production of SESAME STREET was a tad more fun filled than it actually was. 

Granted, these are minor nitpicks, because the larger sense of community between all of these various players and creators is undeniably palpable upon watching this old footage and listening to the crew lovingly talk about their cherished time on the series.  Making SESAME STREET was tough, yes, but everyone involved in making the show enthusiastically embraced it because they knew that what they were doing was just and important.  STREET GANG is an unapologetic love ballad to this ground breaking and never duplicated before or since series with an outreach that can't simply can't be dismissed (by recent estimates, nearly 90 million Americans had watched SESAME STREET growing up, which is astonishing to contemplate).  This documentary also does one thing exceptionally well: It made me feel good and giddily nostalgic while watching it.  STREET GANG makes for a wonderful companion piece to the recent Fred Rogers doc WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, which also chronicled - in a simple, straightforward, and endearing manner - how that long running series became an indelible part of essential children's viewing for decades, and how the world was made infinitely better by its mere existence.  STREET GANG may not break the mould of the documentary form, nor is it the comprehensive expose on SESAME STREET that some (including myself) would have liked (and could have been done better as a long form, mini-series doc), but it's nevertheless an endlessly enjoyable,  intoxicating, and inspiring tale of a group of bold, inspired, and risk talking visionaries that wanted to use television to legitimately help kids from all walks of life. 

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