Entertainment

Before the Muppets, Jim Henson Was a Countercultural Filmmaker

He also tried to open his own psychedelic themed nightclub inspired by Jefferson Airplane.

by Katherine Gillespie
Jun 23 2016, 12:00am

A still from one of the Jim Henson documentaries screening at Revelation Film Festival, Jim Henson: Behind the Seams

A lovable 70s dad with a penchant for puppets, Jim Henson is best known as the creator of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. But what's odd is that according to his biographer, Henson didn't actually possess any great passion for googly eyed furry characters. Seeing himself as a film and television director above anything else, he fell into puppetry by accident and subsequently became a household name. Meanwhile, his gift for experimental filmmaking, seen in documentaries like Youth '68, has often gone overlooked.

This July, Australia's Revelation Film Festival is staging a Henson retrospective, screening some of the visionary director's films as well as behind-the-scenes documentaries about his life. The festival will pay homage to Henson's eccentric oeuvre, aiming to uncover a side to him the public has never seen.

Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Henson's powerful imagination manifested itself in sometimes-bizarre ways. You're probably familiar with Kermit the Frog, but did you know that the inventor of the Muppets once tried to open an inflatable dome-shaped psychedelic nightclub called Cyclia, inspired by his love of the band Jefferson Airplane?

The nightclub project never got off the ground, but many of Henson's more abstract and unusual tendencies did emerge in a series of experimental shorts and documentaries. Henson actually originally got his start making TV commercials, and those proved to be pretty strange as well.

Well worth a YouTube deep dive, Henson's black and white 60s advertisements for instant coffee and cheese flavored crackers featured early incarnations of puppets that would later become iconic—a pointy-toothed prototype of Cookie Monster, for example, is actually more interested in devouring savory snacks. Henson's advertisements are wacky and weird and sometimes kind of scary, hinting at themes later explored in Henson's big budget 80s fantasy movies like Labyrinth.

While working in advertising, Henson was experimenting with muppet-free projects on the side. One of these was his Oscar-nominated short film Time Piece (1965)—which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. The eerily rhythmic nine minute movie is virtually dialogue free, with disconnected scenes stitched together to resemble the pulse of a human heart. It's probably not going to appease the average five-year-old; there's not a Swedish Chef to be seen.

In 1968, NBC aired Henson's counterculture documentary Youth '68: Everything's changing...or maybe it isn't! A collage of interview footage with famous musicians from groups like Jefferson Airplane and Mamas & the Papas, as well as their young fans. It's a unique portrait of youth culture that features plenty of long haired baby boomers talking about feeling groovy and changing the world. Again, it's totally at odds with the Muppet television specials he'd go on to make throughout the 1970s—but you very much get the sense that this was a passion project. The guy was a massive hippie.

By the end of the 1960s, Henson was developing the pilot for what would become The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. For the next decade, he'd be focused on family television. But talented as he was as a puppeteer, in a sense Henson simply saw the Muppets as a commercially viable creative outlet to help fund his other interests.

According to his biographer Brian Jay Jones, Henson fell into puppetry by accident. When he was in high school a local network advertised a job for puppeteers, and the opportunistic teenager feigned string-pulling expertise so he could crack the television industry. "I never played with puppets nor had any interest in them," he'd say later. "It was just a means to an end."

In 1982, Henson co-directed iconic fantasy film The Dark Crystal with fellow puppeteer Frank Oz—you might know him as Yoda from Star Wars. With its alien worlds, strange beasts, and complex animated puppets (some of the most advanced ever produced for a feature film), it's the kind of movie that could only have been made in the 80s. It was a significant departure from Henson's previous work, but if he'd had his way, it would have been even darker and creepier.

Inspired by the original Grimm's Fairy tales, he envisioned The Dark Crystal as a much more surreal movie, with more violence, a looser plot, less narration, and scarier villains. Think Terry Gilliam, but with more animatronics. For better or worse, Henson was forced re-cut the movie after test audiences expressed distaste for the eccentricities of the film. Even then, the studio deemed it too experimental, and Henson was forced to pay $15 million of his own money to buy the film and put it out himself.

In 1986 Henson directed Labyrinth, which afforded another opportunity for experimentation with a big studio budget—and collaboration with the likes of David Bowie. Like The Dark Crystal, it featured fairytale-inspired puppet characters and animatronic creatures that had to be maneuvered by large teams of people. It offered another tantalizing glimpse into Henson's apparently limitless, and sometimes rather sinister, imagination. Sadly, he was still constrained by the movie studio's vision of family-friendly fare. In a different set of circumstances,Labyrinth could have been even weirder.

His untimely death in 1990 at age 53 means that we'll never know what the director's hyper-imaginative mind would have come up with into the twenty first century. While it's probably a stretch to say that Henson was held back by Kermit the Frog, it's fascinating to think what he could have accomplished if he hadn't been quite so busy making children's TV shows and family-oriented films. It's hard not to love the Muppets, but Henson's gift for imaginative experimental storytelling didn't stop at Fraggle Rock.

Revelation Film Festival is happening from July 7-17 in Perth, Australia. Check out the full program here.

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