Amidst the recently renewed “Star Wars” mania, with the beloved franchise’s acquisition and and re-boot by Disney with last year’s behemoth blockbuster, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, new stories, worlds, and characters have been introduced to new audiences. But a long time ago–or rather, “About forty years ago, in a suburb of North London…”–a then, fresh-faced and unknown cast of actors and extras took jobs to make a movie that would later send ripples through the universe, which are still felt today, and for future generations to come.
Those actors have gotten their fifteen minutes of fame extended in Elstree 1976, a new, dutifully made and honorably praising documentary that gives the background and lesser-known actors face-time in the spotlight. With its running time of one hour and thirty minutes, it’s a stuffed movie with a number of actors telling their stories of how Star Wars affected their lives, which, with its heavily nostalgic, leaning on somber tone, should excite only the most die-hard of fans.
“How many actors can say they’ve got their own action figures?” It’s a fair question, and one that writer/director Jon Spira digs into with his documentary (fundraised by Kickstarter), comprised of sit-down interviews of the people that lent their faces (and some only their bodies) to a movie that would become the most popular of all time–even if those people didn’t know it at first.
“It didn’t seem anything special to me. I thought it was a low-budget film to begin with,” says one Star Wars actor, and it’s the same sentiment that all of the interviewees generally share. Of course, it was–absolutely nobody could have predicted that success, with its wacky sci-fi costumes and set pieces and space-serial story about the “the Force.” But after the Death Star’s space dust settled, 25% of the planet’s 8 billion inhabitants have been statistically polled as having seen the classic space opera; reasoned in the movie, meaning roughly 2 billion people have seen these lesser known people filling in the rest of the roles and spaces surrounding such actors as Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, Alec Guiness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi, Carrie Fischer’s Princess Leia, and the director himself, George Lucas.
The talking heads who tell their stories range from the more well-known unknowns of their personal career–Jeremy Bulloch, who donned bounty hunter and fan favorite Boba Fett’s costume and helmet in The Empire Strikes Back, is in front of the camera. So is David Prowse, the bodybuilder-turned-actor inside Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and suit (those may know, that legendary James Earl Jones only provided his voice to film’s most iconic villain), is also interviewed here (fun fact: that’s also Prowse as the muscly caretaker who carries a beaten-up Alex inside from the rain in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange–just one piece of even more obscure trivia that the documentary digs up).
And then there are the fully unknown actors, who, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, are featured here, which should put a smile on viewers’ faces as they recognize the freeze-framed interviewees’ faces, blurry in the background and otherwise, as they pop up in the original movie. Take Garrick, whose role as a Rebel fighter came with his own action figure, created with his full 70s-moustache likeness, yet now self-deprecatingly refers to himself as an “ex-‘X-wing’ pilot.” Laurie, a female stormtrooper, offers her story as well. Derek almost became a male prostitute before his casting in the movie.
Elstree 1976, whose title of course, the most fervent of fans will know refers to the sound stage and year of production on what was then called The Star Wars, squeezes out just an ounce more of fun facts, history, behind-the-scenes footage, and trivia that even the most passionate of fans might not know. There’s the story of the actor who played the X-wing pilot who made his run to destroy the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, who, when he couldn’t remember his lines, had the script taped down to his legs, making it look like he was looking at buttons and cockpit-gadgetry instead of the lines themselves. Fans will also delight in seeing the Stormtrooper, who can famously be seen hitting his helmet on a closing blast door, recount that moment as well.
Elstree 1976 also reveals the rift in the “Star Wars” actor community itself, there are a few who more than wish that their fame was as high as the likes of Kenny Baker (who operated the R2-D2 costume) and Dave Prowse as Vader, whose actual faces were never seen in the film. “Our faces were actually in the movie!” say some of the impassioned, unknown actors. As Han Solo’s space-gangster friend Greedo, Paul Blake states how, earlier in his career, he had played the part of Macbeth, as well as performed in the Royal Court Theatre in London. “Today, my tombstone will read ‘Here lies Greedo’–and that’s fantastic!” Blake says. “I have to say, that after thirty years of living with that, I couldn’t ask for a better epitaph, really.”
We all know that movies are just that–fantasy. Elstree 1976 provides a unique view into the ‘Star Wars’ universe that reveals the stories behind the fantasy, feeling excitable at some moments, but mostly dutiful and slow in the end. Perhaps some Cantina bar-inspired musical score would have given this doc just the right amount of lightness and fun that it needed, instead of an underlying score that recalls the sullen sunset-gaze of Luke Skywalker in the sands of Tattooine–staring out at a world that immortalizes few and passes over the others.
1 h 30 min. ‘Elstree 1976’ opens in select theaters and On-Demand this Friday.