Reel Dad: "Street Gang" brings "Sesame Street" to life at Sundance

"Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street" was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival

For millions of children, the lessons from “Sesame Street” created paths to curiosity and caring, civility and compassion. From its debut on public television in 1969, this magical combination of entertainment and education gave countless children the chance to be more prepared when they began to embrace larger worlds.

The story behind the show has captivated people for years. For me, it was the subject of my thesis as a student studying the impact of television on a child’s self-concept. For numerous authors, especially Michael Davis who authored the definitive history of the show, the “Sesame Street” revolution prompted meaningful exploration. And, for documentary filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo, how this show became so essential to childhood inspires the fascinating new film, “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street.”

You don’t have to have grown up watching “Sesame Street” to cherish this movie. Filmmaker Agrelo carefully goes back in time to inform or remind us how the idea for the series came to be, what purpose it always intended to pursue, and what obstacles its creators had to work through. From the start, those behind the show focused on its essential purpose to prepare children, especially those from inner-city neighborhoods, for issues and challenges they might face. And its creators refused to let resistance from entertainment and education experts ever get in their way.

The film deservedly celebrates the contributions of Joan Ganz Cooney, the force behind the start of “Sesame Street” as leader of the Children’s Television Workshop. When I visited with Cooney years ago, while researching my thesis, I was captivated by her passion for the difference the series could make. Agrelo projects this passion onto the screen as she absorbs Cooney’s detailed recollections of the hurdles the production team had to jump and the serendipitous connection she experienced with Muppets creator Jim Henson.

Few of us can separate our memories of “Sesame Street” from the delights of Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and all the other Henson creations. Hearing Cooney recall this puppeteer’s magic is to travel back in time to a moment when all the problems of the world seemed possible to resolve by simply giving other people the benefit of the doubt. Because, as Big Bird says, “everyone makes mistakes.” As the film’s archival footage takes us behind the scenes of the “Sesame Street” set - that I was invited to visit - we see how caring for children extends beyond the creators and cast doing a job because “Sesame Street” was as much a mission as a show. The film pays special attention to the wondrous contributions of director Jon Stone, a committed visionary I well remember from my time on the set. His tender loving care to preserve the integrity of the program separated “Sesame Street” from the dozens of other television offerings for children.

As with the best of documentaries, “Street Gang” makes us thankful it was made, especially at this moment our world needs any reminder of the good people create. The film also shows us how the world has changed since we first visited this corner of a big city. Before the internet, “Sesame Street” provided a lifeline for families hungry to absorb fundamental lessons. Today, with phones and tablets, apps and streams, we have hundreds of entertainment choices. But the lessons of fairness and inclusion that we should all remember can always be found in a place called “Sesame Street.”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” runs 1 hour, 47 minutes. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to sundance.org/festivals .

Summary: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Content: High. The origins of a landmark television series are beautifully captured in an entertaining history lesson.

Entertainment: High. Any chance to relive the wisdom of Big Bird and the other characters makes for a fun time at the movies.

Message: High. As entertaining as "Sesame Street" could be, its meaning to our world lives in the lessons of fairness and inclusion it helps children of all ages absorb.

Relevance: High. As we hope to unify a nation, and a world, we can all remind ourselves what makes "Sesame Street" such a welcoming place.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. At any age, how we refresh our commitment to a better world gives us a lot to talk about.