Top of the Docs #38 -: Sundance Special: ‘Street Gang’ (2021) is a Comprehensive Look at Sesame Street’s Early Years

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be surveying the best documentaries January’s festival season has to offer, starting with Sundance!

Sesame Street is a name now synonymous with childhood, with a cast of felt and human characters universally beloved by children and parents alike. Now, in 2021, the HBO documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street is taking a look at how the iconic children’s show first began with rare behind the scenes footage and a number of interviews with the show’s original cast and crew. It’s a delightful time capsule of a film that both celebrates the show and contextualizes it within the time period it was made.

The first episode of Sesame Street aired on November 10, 1969 to a generation of children once oversaturated with shows that wanted to do nothing more than sell them products. Sesame Street was different from its predecessors in that it wanted to sell the ABC’s rather than the newest toy or candy bar. More specifically, the show aimed to prepare preschool-aged inner city children for elementary school with fun songs and skits that appealed to them in spite of their educational slant. Street Gang (2021) focuses much of its first half on the development of this initial mission, and the push to get Sesame Street in the homes of children across America.

From the outset, Sesame Street was deemed an inherently political and progressive show. It immediately made an effort to represent people of all races with its live action human cast and approach subjects, such as the death of a loved one, that other children’s shows didn’t dare to cover. Street Gang (2021) explores some of these casting and narrative decisions throughout its runtime, consistently reiterating the fact that Sesame Street was a show that took kids seriously and refused to talk down to them as many other shows of the time did. It is also, as proven by the 2021 film, a show that appeals to adults as well as children – including big name guest stars and fun parodies of contemporary films as a means to entice parents to watch with their kids and hopefully encourage their learning as a result.

Unlike many other documentaries revolving around pop culture subjects, Street Gang (2021) never devolves into a nostalgia-fueled fan piece, neglecting to include any super fans, experts, or historians in its narrative and instead focusing on the men and women who devoted their lives to making Sesame Street become the household name it is today. The only other people interviewed are the children of the show’s cast and crew, who provide an interesting perspective as people whose parents were largely absent from their childhoods in order to help in the creation of a show meant to teach and entertain children across the country. This human cost of the show, as well as a short segment focusing on the history of controversial character Roosevelt Franklin, make the documentary’s image of the series feel more well-rounded in spite of its often positive and heartwarming slant.

Street Gang (2021) ends its timeline shortly after the death of Muppet creator and puppeteer Jim Henson in 1990, having covered just over twenty years of the still-running series’ history. In spite of a noticeable absence of fan favorite character Elmo, created in 1984, the documentary manages to cover a lot of ground in its hour and forty-seven minute runtime, providing a rich history of the educational children’s series through its interviews and archival footage. Although some behind the scenes clips showcased in the film may prove to be a bit too crass for Sesame Street’s current preschool-aged audience, adult fans of the show are sure to enjoy the documentary’s warmhearted, comprehensive look at the show’s early years.

Dir: Marilyn Agrelo

Wri: Michael Davis

Prod: Nancy Abraham, Brian O’Shea, Nat McCormick

Available: On HBO and HBO Max later this year

Header image courtesy of Variety & HBO Documentary Films