Sundance 2021 Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is an easy documentary to love. Not many among us grew up without Sesame Street. The thought is inconceivable. Sesame Street IS childhood. It was a mainstay in our home thanks to my mother’s exuberant rate of reproduction; there was always a toddler falling in love with it for the first time. Although I haven’t seen an episode in years (decades more likely), I could still recognize not just characters but recurring sketches, animations, and songs. This stuff really soaked into my brain, and that’s exactly what it was born to do.

Aimed at preschoolers, specifically those from underprivileged and inner city backgrounds, it was an educational program built with a curriculum to teach to, guided by princes of early childhood development. The people behind the show realized that kids were spending up to 8 hours a day in front of the television set, and wanted to seize the opportunity to give them a leg up when it came to the fundamentals, like abcs and 123s.

Director Marilyn Agrelo interviews from an impressive breadth of sources, including camera operators, actors, puppeteers, writers, songwriters, and more. Jim Henson and director Jon Stone are consulted repeatedly through archival footage, and it’s a pleasure to hear from them both. It’s also quite fascinating to see the joy and the intention with which this show was conceived and created. Of course, the best part is, unsurprisingly, the Muppets themselves. It’s exciting to revisit childhood friends, but it’s also a delight to see Big Bird’s first design, to hear Bert and Ernie address the nature of their very special relationship, to learn how Count got his name, to discover why Oscar was always so very hard to please, and why Kermit felt it was so difficult being green. The show fearlessly took on Big Topics like race, death, and inequality, but they did it with such joy in their hearts and with the very best interests of children in mind that Sesame Street transcended mere television. It has an intangible quality that this documentary does its best to describe.

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