Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 6, 2021)
Back in 1969, public television began to air a new kind of educational series: something called Sesame Street. The show became a hit and remains legendary and influential more than 50 years later.
With 2021’s Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, we find a documentary that looks at the series. Expect a fairly standard framework here, as we get the usual mix of interviews and archival clips.
In the former domain, we hear new remarks from writer Christopher Cerf, co-creator director Jon Stone’s daughters Kate Stone Lucas and Polly Stone, Children’s Television Workshop co-founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, Research and Curriculum Coordinator Sharon Lerner, Muppets creator Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa Henson and son Brian Henson, cameraman Frank Biondo, actor Matt Robison’s daughter Holly Robinson Peete and wife Dolores Robinson, puppeteer Fran Brill, composer’s son Nick Raposo, head writer Norman Stiles, and actors Roscoe Orman, Sonia Manzano, Bob McGrath, Matt Robinson Jr., Emilio Delgado and Caroll Spinney.
We also find older comments from co-creator/director Jon Stone, Muppets creator Jim Henson, CTW Director of Community Outreach Evelyn Davis, Mississippi Authority for Educational Television’s William Smith, WJDX-WLBT’s Bob McRaney, performer Frank Oz, and composer Joe Raposo.
Gang follows the expected path and looks at kiddie TV in the 60s as well as other aspects of the then-current culture. From there we hear of what led to the creation of Street as well as its path to the screen and its mission.
Gang views aspects of the series’ development, how Jim Henson came to the project, the decision to set the show on an inner city location and the “Sesame Street” set, finding an audience, various cast members and Muppets, some controversies, music/songs, and the series’ legacy.
Since I was born in 1967, I was part of the first generation of Street viewers – and among the initial batch of kids who never knew a world without Street. It’s always been a part of my life, and obviously millions of others saw it the same way.
I can’t remember the last time I watched the show – 1974? – but Gang helps recapture the series’ magic. While not the most succinct documentary you’ll ever see, it manages to offer a compelling love letter to an immensely important TV program.
As I watched Gang, it became obvious how much the world it launched became integrated with our lives. Sesame Street permeates so much of modern culture, even if we ignore all the semi-related efforts in the careers of Henson, Oz and others.
You won’t find a critical eye cast at Sesame Street here – not that I think one could dredge up a dark underbelly. Out of curiosity, I searched “Sesame Street controversies” and found “scandalous” results like the instance Katy Perry wore a somewhat revealing outfit on the show or the time Oscar the Grouch made a comment that appeared to mock Fox News.
Oh, the horror!
The impression one gets from Gang is that all involved with Street wanted to make a program with lasting positive impact on kids and society. Perhaps that simplifies things, and Gang never touches on what the fact the series turned into a massive money-making enterprise meant for it. This means no mention of the Elmo phenomenon.
I don’t mind that, though. Gang acts as something of a love letter to Street, but not one that seems unctuous or overly filled with praise.
Instead, Gang gives us a good look at the series’ creation and a mix of appropriate topics. We find a nice array of insights about the creators’ goals and the methods they used to get there as well as important developments along the way.
Probably the biggest flaw I find here stems from Gang’s relatively brief running time, as 106 minutes seems insufficient. I could watch hours more of this material and not get tired of it. Gang becomes a delightful mix of history, introspection and tribute that satisfies.
Footnote: stick through the end credits for a few treats.