It is impossible to have grown up in the United States and not have had Sesame Street make some sort of effect on you. Starring Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie and Oscar the Grouch, the public access television show is perhaps the most revolutionary and important television show ever to air in the United States. So, being tasked with the challenge of telling the creation, history, and significance of this show was not something taken lightly by director Marilyn Agrelo and for the group of people around the world who got to watch the premiere of Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, they may all agree, it was a slam dunk!
The documentary begins at the tail end of 1960s when a women by the name of Joan Ganz Cooney came up with the idea of a children’s show that would be meant to educate but also entertain. The film mostly profiles her role in lifting the show off the ground alongside Jon Stone, the lead writer, producer and director of Sesame Street.
As an American child, Sesame Street was always on at my house, my friends houses, and everywhere you would go. The faces of Bert and Ernie were on my pajamas, Big Bird stuffed animals would line the walls of my friends bedrooms, and I’m pretty sure I learned how to count from the incredibly wise Count von Count. But the greatest lesson that I learned from Sesame Street was that not all kids looked and sounded like me. This is probably the greatest accomplishment of the show and the part of the documentary that hits the hardest.
The documentary centers around the purpose and goals the producers, writers, and puppeteers strived for. They wanted to create a show that captured the essence of their country. The diversity in the streets, the inclusion in all of their hearts, and how they can spread that love and acceptance to the next generation.
The film is a major time capsule of the show but it also is an incredible tribute to puppetteer Jim Henson. Henson, with his Muppets, was with the team from the very beginning. His humor, brilliance, and incredible skillset helped make Sesame Street not just a show for kids, but something that was loved and adored by entire families.
From the opening scene til the last frame I had a smile on my face. Much like another Sundance premiere “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the 2018 documentary that focused on Mister Rogers, they both encapsalte a time when a group of people created something that will live on forever. How a few people with good hearts and even better intentions created something that educated kids not just on skills like learning the alphabet and counting, but teaching them to do good in the world and to treat everyone with kindness.
The common themes of this year’s Sundance, and my reviews so far, are the backdrop of the world right now and the challenges we face. A film like “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is something everyone needs right now. A blueprint for the innoncence of childhood, simpler times, and how far love can go. My heart is definitely a lot more full after watching this film.
Although the subject matter itself would be enough to create an informative fascinating documentary, this film way overachieves in that delivery. The access to the surviving members of the creative team in cast is incredible. But it is the interviews of the children of the ones who have left us that leave the biggest impact. And there is nothing more appropriate than the children of the creators to be the one that tell the story.
The only criticism I have of this documentary is I wish it was longer. At 107 minutes, the amount of history and events are just not enough to give it the time and atttention it deserves. The film starts with a lot of exposition before delivering some true emotional gut punches, but then it is just over. I appreciate them for packaging it into one feature length documentary, but I really believe this could have been a truly impactful documentaru series. But when my only complaint is that I wanted more… you have one good film on your hands!