Jon Spira’s documentary ‘Elstree 1976’ examines the character actors and background artists who populate the original ‘Star Wars’ film, albeit obscured by helmets, masks and prosthetics. Star Wars is such a cultural behemoth that, incredibly, even the smallest part in the original film brings one a level of fame. This documentary explores what it is like to be on the edge of the frame and tells the life stories of those men and women who have found themselves the subject of fandom from the Star Wars community.
In 1976, no one could have predicted what a success Star Wars would turn out to be and, as some of the cast of Elstree 1976 explain, on the set of Star Wars many presumed it would be a T.V. film or a B-movie that would be quickly forgotten. To their amazement, forty years later these individuals find their small claims to fame have carved out for them a place on the convention circuit, making them part of the Star Wars legacy. Elstree 1976 gathers a wide range of people who experienced the making of Star Wars and shares with us their stories, ranging from the well known to the obscure. At first, the amount of simultaneous storytelling is jarring and the inability to digest this amount of narrative almost overpowers the opening twenty minutes of the documentary, however, once the groundwork is laid for these narrative strands, the road to Star Wars becomes an intriguing and tantalising one.
Spira thankfully doesn’t focus too heavily on Star Wars itself (a subject that has been well documented to say the least) and instead the viewer is taken on a journey through the lives of these often fringe individuals. Some started off as starry eyed actors while others simply took a job, in any case, all these years later they have found themselves part of the Star Wars cultural phenomenon.
The narrative morphs through different periods of these individuals’ lives, first pre, then during and finally post-Star Wars. Spira seems reluctant to deviate from this clear and linear format, allowing for each person’s story to unfold in good time. The post-Star Wars period is the most interesting of the three as it becomes a character study, delving into a world of egos, crises of character and reflection.
At the heart of Elstree 1976 is a film about our cultural ambitions of fame. It shines a light on a fairly ugly side of show business in which a large amount of actors and background artists never truly ‘make it’. It’s hard to watch this documentary and not feel that some of these individuals were lured in by the bright lights of show business only to find that now, forty years later, they have nothing to show for it. This is not true for all the cast, but it is an undercurrent that is unsettling at times. Thankfully these individuals seem to have either made peace with this fact or be happy with what they have achieved in life.
The rise of the comic book convention has afforded Star Wars fans the opportunity to meet and interact with these obscure silver screen heroes. It also seems to have offered a form of closure and therapy for some of the actors and background artists who never truly fulfilled their cinematic dreams. Interestingly, what emerges from these conventions is a clear hierarchy within this group of small part players, as ego and jealousy cause some bad blood, David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) are both examples of individuals high on the pecking order compared to others in the documentary. Whether a conscious choice by the filmmakers or not, introducing these two later on during the film and distancing them from the large assortment of stories helps ease the amount of information we are bombarded with in the opening segments and reinforces this hierarchy.
As a film about Star Wars and as a documentary, the film delivers on several key levels. For the more avid Star Wars fan there is plenty of insider information and trivia that makes Elstree 1976 worth watching. Furthermore, we are given a glimpse into the unusual world and dynamics of the convention circuit that many people may not have seen before. The cast have gone on to achieve fulfilling things in their professional and personal lives and some still have ambitions for acting. This glimpse into their lives, hopes and ambitions is not something to be sneered at, but should be revered and celebrated – something that Elstree 1976 manages to do beautifully.
Elstree 1976 is available to buy on DVD now.