A film review by Craig J. Koban September 15, 2016

ELSTREE 1976 jj

2016, No MPAA rating, 105 mins.


A documentary written and directed by Jon Spira

I found it both compelling and somewhat ironic that an interview subject in the new Kickstarter funded documentary ELSTREE 1976 stated that 25 per cent of the world’s population has seen the original 1977 STAR WARS at least once. 

I can almost guarantee that nearly 100 per cent of people that sit through this documentary will probably learn next to nothing new about their favorite space fantasy that they didn’t already know. 

ELSTREE 1976 takes its name from a shooting location and a production year.  Elstree Studios was the site for the making of George Lucas’ epic and iconic original STAR WARS trilogy, which housed – at its peak – complete departments for just about every integral facet of movie making.  Located in suburban North London, it was here where Lucas began shooting STAR WARS in 1976, a production so perceptibly “small” and “inconsequential” that many of the participants – including the perpetually flannel shirted director himself – had no idea that they were concocting what would go on to become the defining pop culture movie mythology of the late 20th Century.  As one person in the doc rather humorously relays, the STAR WARS shoot was “as primitive as it gets.” 



As a lifelong fanatic devotee to this galaxy far, far away, I've immersed myself in nearly every book, magazine article, making-of featurette, and documentary that has chronicled the making of Lucas’ immortal film.  ELSTREE 1976 advertises itself as a doc that probes the behind-the-scenes stories of STAR WARS and one that sheds light on some of the bit players that often never get mentioned in conversations about this saga…the men and women that played, in varying degrees, extremely small parts (some of which were excised from the film altogether) and extra roles that mostly involved having their visages obscured by masks and helmets.  What the doc is trying to do, I guess, is tap into their intimate stories of what they ended up doing in the forty years that has passed since STAR WARS went into production. 

On a positive, ELSTREE 1976 caters to our appetites for STAR WARS infused nostalgia, and being introduced to many of the performers that portrayed blink-or-you’ll-miss-them parts in the film is initially intriguing, especially for how many of them never believed that Lucas’ film would ever be a hit and how an equal number also have a peculiar ambivalence about their experiences as a whole.  The doc is a noble minded enterprise that’s attempting to put a face on the faceless and the tireless efforts of largely unknown actors and the roles they played – albeit monumentally minor – in the making of what would be the pre-eminent blockbuster film of the 1970’s.  Unfortunately, most of the subjects presented here don’t have fundamentally compelling stories to tell and, more regretfully, none of their anecdotes embellish or broaden our knowledge of the making of STAR WAR in the slightest.  Oddly, for a doc about STAR WARS and featuring the word Elstree in its title, ELSTREE 1976 is simply not an informative, nor interesting doc about the film and its production studio headquarters. 

Director Jon Spira certainly feels passionate about his subjects, but perhaps grossly overestimates our willingness to hear them pontificate about their miniscule contributions to STAR WARS over the course of 100-plus minutes.  It’s told in the blandest of bland talking heads doc aesthetic that's sometimes punctuated by lightning quick recreations and some frankly bizarre usage of strobe freeze framing of footage from STAR WARS to emphasize when and where some of these people can actually be located in the film (which, to be fair, would have been impossible without slowing the scenes down).  In the mid-70’s Lucas cast a number of actors, many from the UK and some from Canada, to portray various minute roles in his film, like Stormtroopers, Rebel guards and soldiers, and aliens.  Some of these hired actors did Shakespeare before, including the man who played Greedo in the film, who candidly states at one point, “I’ve played Macbeth, but my gravestone will read ‘Here lies Greedo.’”  We also meet the actor who portrayed the Stormtrooper that Obi-Wan Kenobi famously Jedi mind tricked as well as another who rather infamously embodied the Stormtropper that bonked his head on a Death Star blast door in one scene, a blooper that managed to make it into the final cut, something that the performer recalls with tremendous pride. 

Not all of the stories presented here are rosy.  We hear of the anguish that many faced when their parts were completely excluded from the final cut of the film.  One poor soul in particular – who played a member of the Rebel Guard in the film’s final scene without any dialogue – went into a deep depression after STAR WARS, but healed himself by continuing to do extra work in films and by appearing in fan conventions.  One aspect that ELSTREE 1976 pathetically glosses over is how many of its participants miraculously went on to have small scale careers doing autograph sessions at conventions, which usually involves die hard fanboys waiting in lines for up to an hour to have an autograph from one of these actors that appeared in STAR WARS...for literally a second or two.  How any of them – a majority of whom had their identities completely concealed by latex appliances – could generate such an obsessive following is something that ELSTREE 1976 seems reticent to fully explore. 

Not all of the interviewees are small potatoes, though.  Spira has some heart to heart conversations with David Prowse and Jeremy Bulloch, both of whom played two of STAR WARS’ most memorable villains in Darth Vader and Boba Fett respectively.  Bulloch seems genuinely rattled and humbled by his lifelong celebrity status, especially considering that no one even saw his face while playing the enigmatic bounty hunter in any STAR WARS film.  David Prowse makes for a highly interesting, if not controversial focal point for this doc.  He was an English body builder turned actor that worked with the likes of Stanley Kubrick in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before donning the garb of the most recognizable villain in cinematic history.  As of 2010, he was banned for appearing in Lucasfilm sanctioned STAR WARS conventions over (it's assumed) a longstanding feud between him and Lucas, a tenuous relationship that the doc never seems intrigued with investigating.  Prowse comes off here as a man that’s paradoxically jaded by his role as Vader and one that continues to profit off it to this day.  That, and he places himself on perhaps too high of a pedestal of importance in terms of his contributions to Vader and STAR WARS as a whole.  In an instance of somewhat boastful hyperbole, he matter-of-factly declares, “I did all the acting” for Vader.  That’s superficially true.  He embodied the classic antagonist on purely physical levels, but the true performance came from James Earl Jones’ legendary voice work, a point that he at least concedes, albeit begrudgingly. 

All in all, I feel somewhat ashamed to admit how bored I was by ELSTREE 1976.  I was checking my watch at about the twenty-minute mark and by the time the film was closing in on an hour I was mentally checking out.  It’s an endurance testing chore to sit through, which is not meant to be a disparaging indictment of its subjects.  I liked the personalities presented here and some of their stories maintained a kernel of my interest, but these frankly obscurer-than-obscure STAR WARS actors rarely provide any new substantial context about Lucas’ film, nor do they contribute anything meaty about him, the making of STAR WARS, or, hell, what being in their makeup and costumes was like on a daily basis.  ELSTREE 1976 is modestly engaging as a weird curiosity piece, but as a fully immersive and enthralling expose of one the most important films of all time and the British studios that housed its production…this documentary is kind of a mournful failure.  

The Force is just not with it.  


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