Director: Jon Spira
Writer: Jon Spira
Producer: Hank Starrs, Steve Milne
Stars: Paul Blake, Jeremy Bulloch, John Chapman, Anthony Forrest, Laurie Goode, Garrick Hagon, Derek Lyons, Angus MacInnes, David Prowse, Pam Rose
10 character actors and background players recall their time on the set of “Star Wars” and the film’s connection to their lives.
Imagine meeting a random person at a pub or in line at a store where casual chatting leads to discovering s/he played a stormtrooper, rebel soldier, or cantina creature in the original “Star Wars.” Your eyes might immediately brighten from “tell me more!” excitement while ears would be eager for behind-the-scenes secrets and little-known tidbits about the celebrated sci-fi classic, right?
Now imagine that after telling you everything there is to know about his/her 15 minutes of fame, that person continues talking for 85 minutes more. Initial enthusiasm morphs into Natalie Portman ear-tugging or Elaine Benes head-patting as your eyes dart furiously for a polite excuse to, without risking hurt feelings, exit a conversation suddenly demanding more interest than you wish to invest. This is how it feels to watch “Elstree 1976,” a well-meaning documentary whose good intentions of exploring a seldom-seen “Everyman” corner of “Star Wars” lore are outmatched by anecdotal dialogue that is, putting it plainly, just not that interesting.
Cinema history took place at London’s Elstree Studios in the late spring and early summer of 1976 when George Lucas and company took over the stages to shoot “Star Wars.” Of course, no one knew they were participating in this history at the time, certainly not the background players donning clunky helmets and rubber masks to mix with scores of other extras in scenes of sitting X-Wing pilots or standing stormtroopers. For them, it was another day at the office, not unlike any ordinary blue-collar employee looking only to pull in a paycheck. The difference was their office unknowingly stood at the forefront of a phenomenon that would continue rippling into their lives for decades to come.
While “Star Wars” made familiar faces out of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher, “Elstree 1976” catches up with less notable names descending from David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) all the way down to uncredited actors playing parts too small to have character names. Also included among the ten interviewees are Laurie Goode, who may or may not have been the clumsy stormtrooper that infamously bonked his helmet on a Death Star door, as well as John Chapman and Derek Lyons, whose blurry faces can almost be made out as rebel soldiers if you know the right places to pause the movie.
Documentary director Jon Spira doesn’t shape many clearly discernible themes within his film’s narrative. Early voice-overs from Anthony Forrest, the sandtrooper Jedi mind-tricked by Obi-Wan Kenobi, are accompanied by shots of coins flipping into his gig bag as the former actor plays guitar for uninterested passengers milling about a tube station platform. Visually, there appears to be an insinuation of “hard times” sadness that thankfully, verbal biographies don’t corroborate.
Everyone featured, including Forrest, is contentedly reconciled with fleeting fame. Most express having never had big dreams of Hollywood stardom, desiring mainly to be background players in the first place. Other than flashes of jealousy regarding who should or shouldn’t qualify for convention circuit inclusion, there isn’t much sour grapes regret coloring the mood with melancholy about missed opportunities or feelings of failure.
Act structure is essentially divided into three questions: “how did you become an actor,” “tell us something about your role,” and “what effect does the experience have on you today?” “Star Wars” barely earns a mention for the first 25 minutes as subjects recall family histories and personal backgrounds in theater/film. The back half hour is more of the same but set in present day, as actors tell tales of their children, grandchildren, and other anecdotes of no particular pertinence.
The meat of moderate interest to “Star Wars” fans is sandwiched between those segments, although gossipy insider info of on-set hijinks or “I never knew that!” trivia is not on the menu. The closest thing to a juicy revelation is that, not knowing what George Lucas looked like, Greedo actor Paul Blake inadvertently tasked the not-yet-famous director with fetching him a cup of coffee during his first day on set. This is “Elstree 1976” in a nutshell. Blake is charming and his recollection is cute, though such material is not necessarily riveting.
Mos Eisley alien Pam Rose’s greatest contribution is her mention of dating Christopher Reeve at the height of his “Superman” fame. This potentially tantalizing tease then dissipates quickly when Rose coyly clams up concerning details of the romance. So unless you care to hear how Laurie Goode’s backache led to a Valium addiction or how Jeremy Bulloch sorts pens used to sign convention autographs, calibrate expectations for something in between disappointment and disinterest.
“Elstree 1976” more or less lets its subjects loose to tell slice of life stories about being working class actors tangentially related to a popular culture juggernaut. The rambling nature of the film isn’t really the interviewees’ fault. They are merely being themselves and theirs are the stories “Elstree 1976” permits them to tell.
These could be any ten people pulled off the street sharing accounts of books they are currently writing while musing about the past. Part of the film’s point is highlighting how relatable these actors are, though fact of the matter is, they aren’t any more engaging than any average person from a different walk of life might be.
Slightly reminiscent of the prequels, “Elstree 1976” is a movie you desperately want to like more than its entertainment value reasonably allows. The people are personable, their personalities are warm, and the story is (sort of) still “Star Wars,” yet the lack of truly compelling insight makes it more mundane than memorable as a documentary feature or as an essential chronicle of the “Star Wars” saga.
Review Score: 55