Jim Henson died 27 years ago, but the way in which people speak about him over the course of Muppet Guys Talking, you’d believe it was just within the last couple of months. Instead of casting a pall over the proceedings, it’s a reminder of how truly captivating a talent the man was. Each and every moment feels backed by his presence and even in the case of the puppeteer who didn’t get to work with him, you can tell his impact.
Though technically a documentary, Muppet Guys Talking has a much looser, more conversational style. Shot initially in 2012, the group of 5 consist of some of the most important and prolific muppeteers, who were still alive at the time. Along with Frank Oz, there’s Jerry Nelson (who passed shortly after filming), Dave Goelz, Fran Brill and Bill Barretta. Each of them brings incredible insight, not only to working on the various muppet properties, but what the experience for them was like. Surprisingly the majority of stories often relate to how the act of puppeteering taught them a lot about their life.
Frank Oz serves as director and moderator of sorts, steering conversation whenever he feels is most interesting. Goelz and Nelson naturally settle into the spotlight, regaling the more intriguing and harrowing tales. You can tell that both men would have been completely different people, without the muppets. Nelson is even able to pinpoint the exact moment when he could tell everything was changing. Goelz on the other hand, opens up to the group, and gets them to open up as well. He admits that he often took the characteristics he disliked about himself and would build them into a character for a puppet, as a form of therapy.
Fran Brill and Bill Barretta get slightly short shrift in the proceedings, though part of that probably boils down to a combination of number of characters and time as a performer. Brill mentions that she was always trying to fit into the boys club, but you can tell by the title and love with which the other speak about her, that she was always in that group. Barretta’s inclusion seems to come from being both outspoken & representation of a the most recent guard.
The documentary goes a fantastic job cross cutting from the conversation to footage from the various muppet programs and archival video and pictures of the group working on different projects. There’s a great depth of joy that comes from watching adults doing a table read, in character and mess up. You can feel just how tight nit the muppeteers were and that in return, made them better at their work.
Surprising anecdotes litter the run time, often centering on how difficult or dangerous a particular shoot was. It turns out that even when things did run smoothly on a project, the majority of the team would go out of their way to mess with or distract their co-workers, just for the heck of it.
It all comes back to Jim Henson though. Nary a section or element of the muppeteers experiences is covered without somehow being connected to Henson. The reverence with which they speak of him is astounding. Here decades after his death, the importance of the work he was doing, message he was conveying and the way he carried himself, is still being celebrated. The majority of the stories speak to the leader Henson was, someone who wished to constantly foster creativity. A touching, short tale cements the kindness he possessed. A crew member once was continually failing at his relatively simple task, agitating everyone. Henson asked that he be allowed to continue, until he got it right, not wanting to disparage the individual and hoping to instill confidence.
Coming in at a brisk 65 minutes, it seems as if there are hours of conversations to be had. Goelz, Nelson, Oz, Brill and Barretta have clearly been close for years, easily bouncing off each other, never striking a malicious chord. You can see how each of them has been touched by getting to have a career entertaining people, in which they were largely unseen. They lament that the world lacks more people like Jim Henson and hope that what he started, will last forever. Seeing as how 62 years later (Sam & Friends was ’55) the legacy is still going strong and this documentary is getting released, they need not worry at all.