Director: Jon Spira
Cast: Paul Blake, Jeremy Bulloch, John Chapman
Watch Elstree 1976 online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / Amazon Instant Video
Star Wars. Everyone knows Star Wars. The films, the stars, the TV shows, the toys. And most people who know Star Wars know about the people who made Star Wars. George Lucas. Harrison Ford. Luke Skywalker. Carrie Fisher. The prospect of yet another documentary about the sci-fi saga, then, is hardly a thrilling prospect. But Elstree 1976 is a behind-the-scenes documentary that really does take you behind the scenes – an ode to the little guys and gals who literally stood in the background and watched movie history get made. You may know everything about Star Wars, but this a movie about the people you don’t.
It’s a smart premise for a documentary, and director Jon Spira more than delivers on the promise to delve behind the masks and beneath the helmets of the people who appeared in Episode IV: A New Hope. By focusing on the folks away from the spotlight, Elstree 1976 unveils a new, melancholic underbelly to this starship-destroying behemoth – a making-of about the people whose fortunes weren’t made.
It’s a fitting approach for a franchise that had such an inauspicious start. One actor turned up on set only to accidentally ask George Lucas to make him a cup of tea (credit to George, he did so immediately), which is a sign of just how inexperienced these performers – and this director – were. By some strange alchemy, throwing all of these unknowns together resulted in one of the most well-known series of all time. While it’s fun to hear the non-plussed reactions of already-established names such as Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford, they don’t quite capture the sense of stumbling into success in the same way as Spira’s subjects too – mostly because they all stumbled back out of it.
Most of the enjoyment comes from the on-set anecdotes they bring, from the guy who refused to put his helmet visor down during the final medal ceremony (earning a rude gesture from Mark Hamill behind his back mid-take) to the man who brought Greedo to life – and had to hop back into his costume after Han shot first while it was still on fire and smoking with acid. There’s a nostalgic affection for the low-key production methods used on such a stratospheric blockbuster. “How do you want me to play this alien?” Greedo’s actor asked George. “Play it like they do in the movies,” came the optimistic response. There’s laughter at the shambolic chaos that’s never been noticed – one of the X-Wing pilots had to read his lines from his lap, because he couldn’t remember his script out of chronological order – and there’s an excited pride to the goofs that are – the stormtrooper who famously hit his head on the door is delighted to gush about that day on set.
But there’s a sadness, too. We all realise door-head guy will never be known to everyday film fans for anything else. Yes, the bloke with the same birthday as Mark Hamill was friends with Luke on set, but he didn’t follow him up the career ladder. Even Dave Prowse, the man who famously played Darth Vader (before being dubbed over by James Earl Jones), isn’t allowed into some Star Wars conventions anymore. Exploring that poignant note is what really elevates Spira’s film, as the documentary becomes a thought-provoking study of our current age of celebrity – a world of conventions and autographs, where people who had brief walk-on parts think themselves superior to extras, because their character happened to have a name, where value and talent is at once commodified and, on the flip-side, devalued. At a time when people still queue up to be on TV talent shows, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quality to fame here, which takes on a renewed sorrow in the light of the success of the new Star Wars films – how quickly these people have been left behind and forgotten, despite the fact that their contribution to Star Wars wasn’t a long time ago in a backlot in North London.
Those who immerse themselves more in the film’s legacy are the ones who seem the least satisfied, something that the movie reinforces by the ironic way it introduces everyone with beautiful close-ups on the action figurines inspired by their faces, or the way it zooms in on those handful of crucial frames featuring our subjects, before looping them over and over, trapping them in an eerie limbo of familiarity and anonymity. Those who wistfully shrug off their connections to Star Wars are the ones who bring a more upbeat feeling of closure to this fascinating portrait of almost-recognisable strangers. “We do enough acting as it is,” reflects one elderly gentleman. “My wife will say ‘Did you put that bottle of wine in the fridge?’… And no, I didn’t.” Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Even for the rest, though, there is still a new hope for what life has in store.
Elstree 1976 is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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