'Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street' Is Pure Nostalgia

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

BY James BrotheridgePublished May 25, 2021

Certain images in Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street are sure to ping with anyone who was raised with Big Bird and friends.. For myself, seeing the animated typewriter that could type on itself practically left me unmoored from time and space. I grew up with Sesame Street and these characters, and now there's a part of my foundation made up of Kermit the Frog, in full correspondent mode, interviewing a surprisingly toothy Humpty Dumpty.

That's the appeal of this film and its clear spiritual predecessor, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The critical and commercial success of Neighbor came from a compelling origin story compellingly told and a subject with deep nostalgic caché.

For Street Gang, it isn't so much a deep dive into a single personality than an exploration of what went into the creation and early success of Sesame Street, the long-running educational television show and home to enduring characters like Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch. With this comes a cast of characters, like Joan Ganz Cooney, producer and one of the forces behind the Children's Television Workshop; Jon Stone, the long-tenured writer, director, and producer for hundreds of episodes; Caroll Spinney, Muppeteer behind some of the great characters; and of course Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets himself.

In the 1960s, educational TV that could both entertain and educate children was still a burgeoning notion. Ganz Cooney and company started drawing together TV writers, including likes of Henson and Frank Oz, and counterculture-adjacent thinkers to develop a show that could meet these twin needs: to be fun as well as effective at teaching the alphabet.

As the film builds this collective, it's clearer how some of the origins of the show took root, like the decision to set the show — geared in large part towards "inner city children," as they say — in an urban neighbourhood with a diverse cast of human characters and Muppets. Whenever we get to see the edge to this group of people, in their conflicts or even just in Muppeteers smoking behind the scenes, it generates some real interest.

Director Marilyn Agrelo and her crew also achieve grace on occasion, though not as consistently as one would hope. A scene of Joe Raposo, a prolific songwriter for the series, performing "Bein' Green" is edited together to lip sync to Kermit's performance, making for a beautiful moment. Too often, though, the interest in the film falls back on pre-existing Sesame Street interest.

The film is built from some archive footage and interviews, along with new talking heads with some figures. With such a straightforward approach, there would have to be a strong thesis to make Street Gang more than a warm revisit to this old neighbourhood. Beyond showing an edge here and there, the film manages to skirt around any real discord. With a few diversions, it's all sunny days for Street Gang; a few more clouds may have been of interest.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is available on VOD.

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