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Sundance Review: With “Street Gang,” We Finally Learn How We Got to Sesame Street

Written by: Melanie Addington | February 4th, 2021

Marilyn Agrelo, director of STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by John Dabrowski.

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (Marilyn Agrelo, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

As part of the second generation to be raised by Sesame Street, I have long been inspired by the power of that city block, those puppets, those songs, and loved how Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street elevates the behind-the-scenes making of the show. Director Marilyn Agrelo focuses on producer Joan Ganz Cooney, along with series director Jon Stone, who both gave it their all to make the show happen, alongside Muppets creator Jim Henson. A wholesome documentary that follows the earliest days of Henson’s career and how it merged with Ganz Cooney’s, the film shows the importance of their joint attempt to have children’s television programming be both educational and entertaining.

Some of the more interesting highlights in the film include just how much child psychology and science were used to craft the series, which explains its timeless success ever since. Focusing on how to harness the power of television for good, the show attempted to offer learning skills, rather than commercial products. In addition, there are some eye-opening moments on how Sesame Street dealt with racism, along with a sequence about failed puppet Roosevelt Franklin and the backstory of the first Gordon, Matt Robinson, and his inner turmoil while doing the show. Honestly, an entire documentary just on his role could easily be made.

A still from STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET by Marilyn Agrelo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Luke Geissbühler.

The movie is wholesome, much like the series, but doesn’t shy away from some of the trouble spots, including the sexism Ganz Cooney faced to get it made, the ban in Jackson, Mississippi, and the awkward first attempt at Big Bird. With so many big moments crammed in, the documentary could easily have been split into a series. Of particular importance was how the show dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper (Will Lee, who passed away in real life). For me, at age 5 and only a year out from my brother’s death, the show absolutely prepared me for early childhood trauma, just as it did countless others.

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Melanie Addington has worked with the Oxford Film Festival since 2006 in various capacities and became Executive Director in August 2015. She also directs, writes, and produces films and serves on the Mississippi Film Alliance as President. She co-founded OxFilm, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council's program to lend equipment to Oxford filmmakers.

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