Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street [Sundance Film Festival Review]

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone under fifty-five who didn't grow up watching Sesame Street. The educational children's show had a game-changing impact on television. Millions and millions of kids learned the alphabet, numbers, and shapes from it. The documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street provides a comprehensive and entertaining look at how the program came to be. It would make a perfect double feature with the Mr. Rogers doc Won't You Be My Neighbor?. Both hit that nostalgia button while simultaneously managing to inform.

Many people credit Jim Henson for Sesame Street. While true that he and his Muppet team helped make it popular, the true geniuses behind the scenes were Joan Ganz Cooney and Jon Stone. The former was tasked with helping develop a show that would use advertising-style techniques to sell educational concepts to inner city children. The latter, long-time director of the program, came up with the idea that it should be set in an inner city neighborhood. Aside from comedy writers, professional educators were hired to ensure basic concepts were taught to the young audience.

With that established, Street Gang goes on to highlight how Henson was brought on board, how Big Bird morphed from a klutz to a child-like figure, and the specific magic the Muppets infused Sesame Street with. Director Marilyn Agrelo uses extensive clips from the show, plus captivating archival footage revealing how it was assembled. You get to see Henson, Frank Oz, Carroll Spinney, and the other Muppeteers bringing their characters to life. An especially amusing segment of the documentary is focused on “bloopers” in which the puppet masters go hilariously off-script after screwing up.

Former cast members and other key personnel are interviewed on-camera. They discuss how music was crafted for the program. The intentional (and surprisingly controversial) racial diversity among the cast members is another subject addressed, as is the manner in which the show tackled death when one of its stars – Will Lee, a.k.a. Mr. Hooper – passed away. What's touching about these revelations is the knowledge that everyone was on the same page in wanting to avoid the trap of talking down to children. Nothing that happened on Sesame Street was accidental. It was all part of a carefully coordinated plan to present substance to viewers.

Street Gang is a treasure for anyone who ever watched Sesame Street. The beauty of the show is that it's easy to take for granted. That's how smoothly every episode plays. Watching the movie gives you a newfound appreciation for the idealism behind it. All the makers believed TV could be used as a tool to impart not only an education, but also a view of the world that offered kids comfort and hope. Still on the air five decades later, there's no doubt they succeeded beyond what any of them could have imagined.

Street Gang

out of four

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is unrated, but contains mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.