Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021)

The recent Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a rousing success with both audiences and professional critics, so it’s natural that a subgenre of vintage television hagiographies would follow.  Chicken Soup for the Soul’s movie production wing has now entered the chat with an adaptation of the pop media history book Street Gang, which documents the early development & broadcast of the children’s education show Sesame Street.  Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor‘s museum tour through Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is a Wikipedia-in-motion recap of its show’s historic bullet points, underlined by a heartfelt nostalgia for its radical, politically pointed brand of Kindness in an era of constant political turmoil (the times, they aren’t a changin’ much).  As a history lesson, the film does a great job contextualizing Sesame Street‘s intent, execution, and impact through the 1970s and 80s; it efficiently packs a lot of background information into a relatively short runtime without overwhelming the audience.  As an emotional nostalgia trip, however, it never quite conjures the same magic as the Mister Rogers doc, which was largely popular because it could wring tears out of an unsuspecting audience like an old dishcloth.

As told here, Sesame Street started as a purely educational public service meant to enrich the lives of Inner-City Kids who were watching television for up to 60 hours a week, mostly alone while their parents worked.  Childhood psychology studies were conducted to parse out exactly what children paid attention to and retained from all that screentime, and how to make the most use out of that engagement.  It turned out commercial jingles for products like breakfast cereal & beer were the most resonant programming among the adolescent audience, so they designed a show that would “sell the alphabet to preschool children” as if it were a supermarket product.  Then, through the process of putting together a show aimed specifically at young urbanites, eccentric puppeteers like Jim Henson & Frank Oz were paired with Civil Rights activists & other Lefties to guide its creative vision, expanding its scope from educational jingles to an all-inclusive utopian vision of a world where “television loved people” instead of being outright hostile to them.  It’s a twisty journey from concept to screen with creative, political input from many, varied minds.  All that amounts to a fascinating history (which I assume is even more richly conveyed in the source material), but not necessarily an emotional gut punch.

Luckily, Sesame Street already has its own emotional gut punch documentary in the Carroll Spinney biography I Am Big Bird, which charts out the beloved puppeteer’s delicate psychological balance as expressed through both Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch.  If you’re looking for a good, wholesome cry, go there.  Because Steet Gang is spread out across so many collaborators and decades of backstory, it can’t possibly pack the same emotional wallop as the Fred Rogers or Caroll Spinney docs.  Between its praise for Spinney, Henson, Oz, songwriter Joe Raposo, and behind-the-scenes shot callers like Joan Ganz Cooney & Jon Stone, it’s reluctant to single out any one creative as responsible for the show’s magic, which makes for good journalism but shaky foundation for an emotional arc.  If there’s any core pathos to the story Street Gang tells, it’s in watching a group of young, fired-up artists & Leftists age into grumpy, burnt-out workaholics as the weekly workload of Sesame Street grinds their enthusiasm into dust.  For the most part, though, it’s just a warm bath of vintage television nostalgia that relies on feel-good throwback clips & behind-the-scenes insight to feel worthwhile.  And it works.  The expectation that these vintage TV docs emotionally destroy you is likely an unfair one; sometimes they’re just Nice.

-Brandon Ledet

A Christmas Carol Five Ways

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For this holiday, I decided to watch five different versions of A Christmas Carol. Despite the anti-semitic subtext (the main character is a stingy money lender with a big nose, and the name Ebenezer, who finds the meaning of Christmas), it’s a story that 173 years later still feels relevant: a ruthless, old rich man who hates Christmas being scared into human decency.

I’m going to give an overview here in chronological order along with my choice for favorite ghost.

Scrooge (1951)

This is the version considered to be the best classic. It’s easy to write it off as just a straightforward telling of the book, but there’s a lot of stylistic fun. The ghosts have some cool fadings in and out, the lighting and atmosphere are spooky, and this film seems to have set the rules for how A Christmas Carol movies should look and feel. Not to mention the iconic way they present Tiny Tim’s famous line.

Alastair Sim is a really great Scrooge. He plays both sides of the character’s nature well: the detestable penny pincher and the pitiful old man. Not to mention that he makes a bunch of fantastic faces. His ending transformation is absolutely manic and almost more terrifying than how he starts out.

Favorite Ghost: I think the Ghost of Christmas Past here is actually really cool. In a lot of ways, I think this is the hardest ghost to get right, which is a shame because it’s the one that usually gets the most screen time.  I like this guy’s Greek robes. He’s soft spoken yet authoritative, which I guess makes sense, since the past speaks for itself.

Scrooge (1970)

I was really surprised with how much I really enjoyed this one. It might be my second favorite and I’m considering adding it to the household tradition watch list. It’s very solidly British, with very solidly British humor. It’s a musical, and one of the first songs you hear is “I Hate People.” If you’re not sold after that number, I don’t know what to tell you. But if you make it through enjoying nothing else, it gets really ’70s weird near the end, with a trippy scene where Scrooge actually goes to Hell.

Albert Finney is by far the grubbiest Scrooge. There’s a few close-ups of his very grimy hands with dirt under the finger nails. Scrooge’s house reflects that and  is the most convincing Scrooge house. It’s this elaborate mansion, but Scrooge is so stingy that he only uses a small, filthy section of it. The rest is cobwebs and decay.

Favorite Ghost: Jacob Marley is my favorite ghost in this one. He’s played by Alec Guinness (hey, he plays a ghost at least twice in his career), who pantomimes ghostly floating by bobbing up and down. Second place to the Ghost of Christmas Past for having a really great hat!

Scrooged (1988)

This take on A Christmas Carol is very different. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s about Bill Murray who is a television executive. He’s ruthless and bizarre. As he’s producing a live TV version of A Christmas Carol, he gets visited by the three ghosts (I guess four if you count Marley) who are just as updated and bizarre. It’s the very cynical Network-esque take on the story.

Bill Murray is great as a rich asshole. He’s exactly the kind of rich asshole a modern audience knows about. The boss who will fire someone for bringing up reasonable concerns and will ignore when a single mom needs to take her child to the doctor.  As a Scrooge type character he’s half as old but twice as mean, and despite the surreal world that surrounds him, he’s quite believable, which in a lot of ways makes him seem like he’s past redemption. Luckily the ghosts are ruthless and sadistic.

Favorite Ghost: It’s really hard to say no to Carol Kane as bubbly fairy punching Bill Murray in the face, but I actually really like the take on Christmas Yet to Come here. Its entrance, just appearing, looming on the television monitors, is just so creepy and amazing.

A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

This version is my personal favorite and has been since childhood, and despite the presence of The Muppets, it’s actually really close to the book. There are many, many lines lifted straight from the page. I’m kind of a big Jim Henson/muppets fan in general (which you may remember from my article about The Dark Crystal), but I think what really gets me about this movie are those Paul Williams melodies. I don’t really think it’s Christmas without them (especially since my other favorite Christmas movies is Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, another Henson production with more of Williams’s music). This movie came out after Jim Henson died and was directed by his son, but all the other muppet players are there: Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Steve Whitmire (who now voices Kermit after Henson’s death).

Gonzo is Charles Dickens here and narrates the whole thing with the help of Rizzo the Rat. Following that pair’s misadventures through the story keeps the muppet whimsicality throughout the whole movie. Not to mention the appearances by other notable muppet characters like the Swedish Chef or Sam the Eagle. Michael Caine as Scrooge delivers the “they better do it and decrease the surplus population” line with so much darkness and grit, but at the same time has such good chemistry with his furry castmates. As I’ve said already that this is my favorite version of the story, he’s also who I think of as Scrooge.   Also at the end, he busts out some of the most awkward moves I think I’ve seen a grown man do, and in his night gown to boot!

Favorite Ghost: I’m going to have to go with Marley here. Except in this version they created a second Marley, Robert Marley. These two Marleys are played by Statler and Waldorf, who are known for being the hecklers. They get a pretty good musical number complete with singing money chests.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Out of all the versions I watched, this was the most mediocre and also the most frightening. It’s a Robert Zemeckis animated feature done in a very similar style to Polar Express, which means uncanny semi-realistic people, but beautiful backgrounds. There are so many adaptations of this work, though, that I don’t think I really understand why this one was even necessary, since it’s very close to the book and other than some impressive animation it’s pretty unremarkable. Nor do I understand why a family movie has a couple unnecessary jump scares. Despite the jump scares and creepy animated people, it just seems to drag on.  There’s so many scenes of Scrooge getting dragged along and knocked about all of them screaming, “We released this in 3D!”. It gets so old so quickly. There’s also some really bizarre and troubling imagery worked throughout. Jacob Marley’s jaw gets detached. The Ghost of Christmas Past goes through a freaky face morphing thing. A woman gets snatched away by a straight jacket. It’s just very dark. I wasn’t especially impressed with Jim Carrey as Scrooge, either. Albeit, this was animated, so I’m going off the voice acting for the most part, despite the film using motion capture heavily in it’s animation.

Favorite Ghost: I didn’t think they were interesting at all, but I guess I’ll go with Marley again, but only because he’s a grotesque, decaying corpse.

Interestingly, 3 of the 5 titles are some variation on Scrooge. All of them are agreed on what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks like, 4 out of 5 have similar ideas of the Ghost of Christmas Present, but none of them can agree on what the Ghost of Christmas Past looks like.

-Alli Hobbs