REVIEW: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2020)

Pretty much anybody that grew up in the English speaking world will have fond memories of Sesame Street, the American children’s television series beloved not only by toddlers and pre-schoolers but by their parents too. Launched in 1969, this educational program combined live-action actors, puppetry, and animation – all in the aim of giving American (and Australian, and numerous other nationalities) children a foot up in literacy and numeracy before starting primary school.

Sesame Street today is a multi-national phenomenon, with more than 20 international co-productions airing in 120 countries globally. Street Gang, a 2020 documentary based on Michael Davis’ book, takes viewers back more than five decades – to when it was simply an idea shared between a handful of producers and academics in New York. Director Marilyn Agrelo has a lot of material to share in this film; she balances it all brilliantly.

Here’s the thing: in terms of historical impact, Sesame Street is as much celebrated for its educational impact as it is for being the show that brought Jim Henson’s Muppets into the mainstream. The characters Sesame Street pushed into our collective pop culture include Kermit the Frog (although he technically pre-dates the series by more than a decade), Ernie and Bert, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and ‘lovable, furry, old” Grover. There is a wealth of material to be explored just in Henson’s contribution to the show, and how it in turn set up his subsequent career. Agrelo’s documentary could easily spend literally tens of hours exploring the design, presentation, and effect of these characters. Instead she carefully keeps her film in balance. As much as it is about the Muppets, Street Gang is an insightful and well-plotted exploration of the pedagogy of educating children.

It takes a documentary like this to appreciate just what a revolutionary production Sesame Street was. It had its origins in the turbulent environment of late 1960s America, and reflected the civil rights movement in a way that was bolder than anything else on the screen. It took the very same commercial strategies used on TV to sell toys and candy to children and used them to sell the children the alphabet and numbers instead. It was a site for boundless creativity, and experimentation, and a safe creative environment for a vast array of creatives.

A pivotal figure that emerges is Jon Stone, the series’ original director, whose contributions have historically been subsumed beneath the shadows of Henson and Sesame creator Joan Ganz Cooney. Thanks to archival interviews and new conversations with colleagues and family (Stone died in 1997), his full contribution can be revealed. Similar archival scenes provide an insight into several other key contributors, notably composer Joe Raposo. Puppeteer Frank Oz seems slightly odd in his absence during new interviews, although he does appear in behind-the-scenes sequences. It is wonderful to see key Muppet contributor Fran Bill receive acknowledgement, although some key colleagues like Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt get curiously overlooked. There is so much material here to sift through, and Agrelo clearly had to make some tough choices.

This is a smart, well-framed documentary that boasts a wealth of fascinating footage, interviews, and opinions. More than that: for those viewers of a certain age it is one hell of a nostalgia trip.

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