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Review: Elstree 1976 (2016)

Elstree 1976 (2016)

Directed by: John Spira

Premise: A documentary about bit players on the original Star Wars. The film provides the biographies and behind the scenes stories of several actors who appeared in background roles or were cast in speaking parts that required them to wear masks.

What Works: Star Wars is one of the most discussed, dissected, and debated movies in the history of cinema with books, websites, discussion boards, fan videos, and other media dedicated to analyzing even the most obscure minutia of the original film, its sequels, and spin off properties. But despite all of that coverage, Elstree 1976 is able to find a unique angle on its subject. This film interviews a handful of people who worked on the original Star Wars (and one actor who was cast in The Empire Strikes Back) and tracks their experiences and life stories before and after they crossed paths with one of the greatest cultural phenomena of the last fifty years. Among the interview subjects of Elstree 1976 include Paul Blake who played Greedo, Garrick Hagon who played Biggs Darklighter, Pam Rose who played Leesub Sirlin, and Angus MacInnes who played rebel pilot Gold Leader. The film also includes interviews with David Prowse who played Darth Vader (in the suit) and Jeremy Bulloch who was cast as Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Most of the interviewees discuss the circumstances in which they got involved with the film, which was not a high profile production at the time, but they also reflect on their backgrounds and entry into acting, which in most cases was inauspicious. What is most interesting about Elstree 1976 is the last third of the picture in which the actors reflect on the way in which they are a part of a major cultural institution. This documentary, while respectful of Star Wars, does not trip over itself to pay homage to it or to George Lucas. That alone separates Elstree 1976 from so many reverential Star Wars documentaries. In fact, the tone of Elstree 1976 is sometimes melancholy. Like most people who pursue acting, few of these performers’ careers amounted to anything and yet they are a part of one of the most watched motion pictures of all time and remained in obscurity while their characters were made into action figures. Others went into different fields and created a legacy independent of acting or of Star Wars. Also interesting is the look behind the scenes of the sci-fi convention circuit. The interviewees discuss their interactions with the fan community but also some of the tensions among their fellow convention goers. This is a new angle on Star Wars that befits the age of fandom.

What Doesn’t: Elstree 1976 will be of most interest to Star Wars fans but paradoxically there isn’t that much in it about the making of the 1977 film. That’s just as well since there are already plenty of documents about the production of the first three Star Wars movies. But Elstree 1976 may not be the film that Star Wars fans are looking for. The editing of Elstree 1976 is disjointed, especially in the first third of the picture. This documentary is about the lives of these actors and in its effort to introduce and establish each person’s backstory the filmmakers jerk the viewer from one interview subject to the next. A lot of Elstree 1976 consists of testimony with the actors looking into the camera and speaking about their experiences. While most of the interviewees are interesting enough to listen to, the film would have benefitted from more b-roll footage or other inserts that would have punched up the visual style. When Elstree 1976 does include footage from Star Wars, the filmmakers tend to use an obnoxious looping effect in which a three second clip rolls backward and forward.

DVD extras: The Special Director’s Edition of Elstree 1976 includes extended interviews, a tour of Elstree Studios, and a commentary track.

Bottom Line: There’s been a lot written and said about the legacy of Star Wars but Elstree 1976 manages to explore something new and interesting. While it isn’t a great documentary, it does manage to distinguish itself in the discourse of Star Wars and adds a new perspective to an old topic.

Episode: #626 (December 18. 2016)