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When Sesame Street was at the peak of its popularity in the early 1970s, more than 12 million children watched every single day. That’s a bigger audience than the Oscars got this year. The series is still on the air—you can catch new episodes on HBO Max—but it’s hard to imagine it ever having the same cultural power it once did. The new documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street mercifully resists the urge to point out the obvious: that this innovative TV series created half a century ago wouldn’t make it to air today. Instead, it simply revels in the past. As an unabashed celebration of a series everyone already loves, Street Gang certainly lacks urgency, but its earnest desire to spread the gospel of Sesame Street is enough to make the trip worthwhile.
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo, who earned “street” cred by directing episodes of The Electric Company, Street Gang (the flippant name comes from Michael Davis‘ 2008 book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, upon which the film is based) opens on the show’s origins, with a trio of innovative artists—Jim Henson, John Stone, and Joan Cooney—designing an irresistible set-up: What if they used marketing techniques to sell learning to children? Sesame Street could almost be considered anti-television, employing jingles, puppets, and celebrity guests in the service of educating America’s youngsters. There was a special focus on one demographic: low-income kids of color in cities. That’s why it was set on a street. “When you’re a kid stuck in an apartment,” Stone explained, “that’s where the action is.”
A Wikipedia entry set to images, Street Gang tells its story as a series of vignettes with no discernible arc. There are segments on the evolution of Big Bird and the behind-the-scenes relationship between Henson and Frank Oz (who voiced, respectively, Bert and Ernie). Neither is particularly enlightening, but both are enjoyable. The section that chronicles the show’s willingness to tackle the subject of death is particularly illuminating; after a cast member dies, the writers craft a scene in which the human characters explain mortality to Big Bird. It’s a stirring moment and an example of just how far the show was willing to go in its philosophical refusal to pander to children.
The most electrifying segments are those chronicling the show’s depiction of race. Jesse Jackson shows up to tell the kids they are “somebody,” and Muhammad Ali is shown singing Sesame Street‘s virtues on a late-night talk show. Street Gang also depicts the political blowback, in the form of a Mississippi state official who banned the show from the airwaves before a CBS news story demonstrating its popularity among the state’s children forced him to put it back on. It’s a powerful moment that contextualizes the show’s progressive victories in both history and the present. The film could have used more of that.
What it does have is an endless array of smiling faces of every size, color, and shape, and who could refuse that? There’s so much happiness onscreen that it seems silly to take issue with the film’s meandering structure, but there’s one moment worth lingering over. Over the closing credits, Paul Simon sits on a stoop and plays “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” while a gaggle of kids sing and dance along as only children can, inventing their own lyrics and steps without a trace of self-consciousness. A moment of unadulterated joy, it typifies the ease of making a halfway decent documentary about such a bold work of art, and also its challenges. Attempts to explain its greatness will inevitably fall short. You’re better off just watching the show.
Street Gang premieres on VOD on Friday, May 7.