Documentary Review: ‘Elstree 1976’

The title of Jon Spira’s documentary “Elstree 1976,” which refers to the English studio where much of the original “Star Wars” was filmed, might suggest a behind-the-scenes look at the making of that beloved classic, but while we do get a few anecdotes about stuffy Stormtrooper costumes and George Lucas fetching coffee, Spira is really after something else—a portrait of people on the outer fringes of show business, who, through a bit of right-place-right-time happenstance, have been gifted a modest sip of fame: “I was in ‘Star Wars.’”

Spira has collected together ten people who appeared onscreen in the original “Star Wars,” from David Prowse, the man behind Darth Vader’s mask, to a guy who in one scene visibly bonks his head on an automatic sliding door. Some of these people had a line or two; others were just extras. A few of them appeared in other films, but none of them went on to any sort of fame or success. Most of them eventually left show business. If they are known at all, it is to “Star Wars” obsessives and attendees of sci-fi conventions, where some of them make a living signing autographs.

“Elstree 1976” is good enough that it’s hard not to wish it were better. This is in a different class than a worthless fan doc like “Back in Time” (about “Back to the Future”)—it is earnest, sensitive, and unusually well-shot for a movie of this sort—but it is still ultimately a disappointment, full of promising ideas that never quite bear fruit. At its best, “Elstree 1976” is a work of pop archaeology, archiving and annotating the margins of our most beloved pop culture text. In the film’s most inspired moment , Spira cuts together loving close-ups of action figures with the voices of the people who played those roles. It’s a loving and fascinating illustration of the peculiar intersection of pop culture and real life. But too often the film is just a profile of some people who aren’t all that interesting. A great documentary needs a great subject, and while the people in Spira’s film (mostly) seem like good folks, they are, frankly, kind of boring.

Spira is clearly genuinely interested in the way the winding path of a person’s life can take them ever so briefly through a pop culture phenomenon that will eventually come to define them, whether they like it or not. But Spira too often loses this thread, eventually getting mired in the minutiae surrounding sci-fi conventions. Prowse, for obscure reasons, has been barred from two of the bigger conventions. Other interviewees offer their opinions about who “deserves” to be at these events and who doesn’t. In the film’s lowest moment, the guy who plays Greedo discusses the various pens he uses to sign autographs. With some tightening and focus, “Elstree 1976” could have transcended its origins as a minor codicil to the “Star Wars” behemoth; instead, it ends up embracing it.

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