SIFF 2021 Review Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Year: 2021

Runtime: 107 minutes

Director: Marilyn Agrelo

By Joan Amenn

“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away…” Few children would not be familiar with that old, familiar tune from one of the most loved television shows in history. In 1969, a new experiment in educational television was disguised as musical, entertaining lunacy that involved furry creatures and a giant, walking canary. This was “Sesame Street” and it revolutionized what television could be and unleashed the power of what it could achieve. Surprisingly, none of what the show accomplished included selling children breakfast cereal or bubble bath. That was due to the fact that it was launched on public television, which was also a new and revolutionary concept back in the late 1960’s.

‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” does not reveal anything new in its behind the scenes look at a show that has already been scrutinized, analyzed, lionized, and criticized for decades. But it’s the nostalgia of the archival footage which Director Marilyn Agrelo has pieced together and the irresistible whimsy of Jim Henson’s Muppets that make the watch worthwhile. Along the way, we’re reminded of the late, great Jon Stone who, as director of “Sesame Street” seems to have been to that show that Kermit the Frog is to “The Muppet Show.” He was a ringleader of insanely creative people who just barely contained their energies from devolving into hilarious chaos on a daily basis.

Stone’s chief partner in crime, as it were, was of course Henson himself. At first meeting with the educators and child development professionals who were preparing the show, Henson seemed too bohemian for some tastes. Long hair, a heavy beard and a hippie wardrobe distracted from his sharp mind and salesmanship. One member of the staff allegedly told him they wanted an ad campaign to sell kids the alphabet and he wholeheartedly embraced the concept.

 “Sesame Street” would not be what it is without music and Joe Raposo who would write some amazingly enduring songs for the show. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll find yourself humming along to the Raposo musical catalog as it is featured in the film, which includes the often overlooked but empowering “I’m an Aardvark!” The more familiar and perhaps approachable “It’s Not Easy Being Green” as sung by Kermit remains a timeless and penetrating ode to self-awareness and acceptance that has few if any equals in any other children’s song.

“Sesame Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is an HBO Production and no one on camera, including creator Joan Ganz Cooney herself, acknowledges the elephant in the room regarding their involvement in this project. As of 2015, “Sesame Street” moved its filming from PBS to HBO studios. This means that for the last six years kids who want to watch new episodes of their favorite show have to be able to afford a subscription to the streaming service. Otherwise, they will have to wait for nine months for them to appear on PBS. Since “Sesame Street” at its inception was aimed at inner city children who were not able to afford such luxuries as cable television, this seems at the very least a violation of the show’s original mission to be accessible to them. It is a sad truth that some children cannot get to Sesame Street anymore as quickly and easily as others.

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