REVIEW: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Sundance Festival 2021)

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Like most Americans born after the 1960s, I grew up on Sesame Street. It was hugely influential on my early childhood development and I still have fond memories of it. It’s one of those shows that seems like it’s always been on. Obviously, there was a time before Sesame Street, but I can’t imagine what that was like. This is why Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, a new documentary that premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, interested me so. How did this monumental show become what it is? Who was behind its creation and how did they pull it off? That’s exactly what Street Gang seeks to answer and it does so both informatively and stylistically. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a beautiful, heartwarming documentary. While it doesn’t contain a whole lot of new information, it’s well worth a watch for all who grew up on Sesame Street. (4 out of 5 wands)

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
“Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” Based on Michael Davis’s best-selling book of the same name, Marilyn Agrelo’s film Street Gang explores how creator Joan Ganz Cooney, original series director Jon Stone, and legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson—among other key talents—joined forces to create a children’s television show that would become a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon. Recognizing that kids were utterly captivated by television, these visionaries set out to harness the power of the medium for good—to offer learning rather than products to children. More than 50 years later, the show reaches over 150 countries around the world, continuing to entertain while it educates.

Drawing on fantastic and funny behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with beloved cast members and crew, the film goes beyond the considerable nostalgic appeal of Sesame Street to tap into the enduring emotional resonance of the program’s core message of affirmation and inclusion—and the promise of preparing the next generation to imagine a better world for us all.

Like Michael Davis’ similarly titled book, Street Gang tells the story of a group of TV artists, puppeteers, and educators (Jon Stone, Joan Cooney, Jim Henson, Lloyd Morrisett, et al) who came together in the late 1960s to execute a radical idea—a television show aimed at children (particularly inner-city children) that would educate them in addition to entertaining them. What emerged was Sesame Street, a program that combined the sensibilities of TV advertisements with elements of comedy and education to, as one of its creators put it, “sell the alphabet to preschool children.” And the rest, as they say, is history. A history that we’ve all witnessed.

Street Gang explores that history through a combination of newly filmed and archival interviews and tons of archival behind-the-scenes footage. The resulting film is a mostly-chronological examination of Sesame Street’s early years, with an emphasis on the recollections of those who were intimately involved. As a result, the film comes across as less of a revelatory experience and more of an oral history that celebrates the work of many talented artists. To be clear—this isn’t a bad thing. Street Gang is no mere fluff piece; it looks at both the good and the bad that went into the creation of the show. For all the brilliance that happened, there were moments of dysfunction—from Jon Stone’s difficultness to the unceremonious axing of Roosevelt Franklin (and the subsequent departure of the character’s puppeteer, and Gordon actor, Matt Robinson). The making of Sesame Street appears to have been a mostly positive one, though, but it’s nice that the film doesn’t shy away from examining its warts too.

The structure of the documentary is exactly what you might think. It starts at the beginning, laying out all of the key players and working forward, ending around the time of Jim Henson’s death (and Big Bird’s heartbreaking performance at his memorial). Along the way, the filmmakers talk to those still-living creators, executives, actors, and the families of those who’ve passed away (and use archival interviews with those who have passed away), relying on their anecdotes to tell the story of Sesame Street’s creation. These anecdotes are the heart of the film. We get to hear from actors like Roscoe Orman and Sonia Manzano, who talk about the opportunities Sesame Street gave to performers of color (and children of color who felt represented by those actors). We hear from Caroll Spinney (the puppeteer for Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch) in an interview filmed sometime before his death, reflecting on his time on the show. It’s emotional hearing from Spinney and seeing how alive he still was. But it’s also a delight seeing him perform these little self-deprecating bits with Oscar in his interviews. Even more emotional, though, are the archival interviews with people like Jon Stone and Jim Henson. The two of them had such love for the show and it’s moving to hear them talk about it prior to their deaths. While the film doesn’t really contain any information you can’t find elsewhere, it’s nice having it all packaged here, surrounded by these touching recollections from those who made the show.

And, at the end of the day, that’s what makes Street Gang worth watching. Street Gang is a heartwarming story told by the people who lived it. It hits all of the beats you want it to, touching on the show’s beginnings, its successes and its weaknesses, and the heartbreak it saw in its later years. You’ll laugh at the outtakes scattered throughout the film, you’ll be moved by the memories shared by the cast and crew, and you’ll cry at the reminisces of the episode that dealt with Mr. Hooper’s death and of the aftermath of Jim Henson’s death. Street Gang isn’t a film for the kids currently watching Sesame Street; instead, it’s a film for all those adults who grew up on the show. It’s nostalgic and heartbreaking, but you’ll be left with a huge smile by the end.

4 out of 5 wands.

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