'Elstree 1976': London Review

Star Wars: the extras strike back.

Documentary maker Jon Spira tracks down some minor actors who appeared in the orginal 'Star Wars' movie, from Darth Vader to tiny background roles.

A long time ago in a studio complex not far from London, an army of unknown actors gathered to play minor roles in an obscure science fiction movie that would later go on to conquer the universe. The film was called Star Wars, of course, and it featured hundreds of extras, mostly hidden behind plastic helmets and rubber masks. Directed by Jon Spira, Elstree 1976 tracks down 10 of those bit-part players four decades later, filling in their life stories both before and after their close encounter with George Lucas and his multi-billion-dollar blockbuster franchise.

A genial study of fleeting fame and its aftermath, Spira’s Kickstarter-funded documentary takes a lightweight but entertaining approach to well-worn subject matter. World premiering at London Film Festival this week, Elstree 1976 is more bittersweet human interest story than genre-focused fanboy magnet. All the same, with promotional buzz around The Force Awakens already close to feverish, the Star Wars connection alone should guarantee this quirky little sideshow further festival bookings, TV sales and possible niche theatrical interest.

Bookended by extreme close-ups of Star Wars action figures, Elstree 1976 largely consists of straight talking-head interviews with its cast. Now in their sixties and seventies, mostly Brits and Canadians, all share broadly positive but uneventful memories of working on the first movie. Among them are John Chapman, who had a wordless role as an X-Wing pilot, and Paul Blake, who played the green monster Greedo, blasted to death by Han Solo in the cantina scene. Jeremy Bulloch, who joined the franchise later as bounty hunter Boba Fett, also makes an appearance. Spira zooms in on each player’s fleeting screen appearance with wobbly freeze-frame shots that mimic the back-and-forth of vintage VHS tapes, a rare imaginative touch in an otherwise conventionally shot documentary.

Four decades later, most of these characters have pretty unremarkable midlife stories. A few are still acting in small roles, others writing songs and children’s books. Several still milk their Star Wars connections at fan conventions, where their place in the pecking order is brutally highlighted by the number of autograph hunters lined up at their table. There is humor here, albeit tinged with sadness. Nobody appears to have experienced great triumph or tragedy since 1976, which robs Spira’s film of any serious emotional gravity.

Spira maintains a warmly affectionate tone throughout, showing commendable restraint given that some of his interviewees would fit right into Extras, the Ricky Gervais TV comedy about the mundane world of bit-part players. Indeed, one of his recurring interviewees, Derek Lyons, looks and sounds uncannily like a Gervais creation with his rambling ruminations on life, the universe and “Zen swimming.” The farce is strong with this one.

The film’s star interviewee is Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, who traded a weightlifting career to work as an actor for major directors including Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam. But after hanging up his lightsaber, Prowse fell out with George Lucas over multiple issues, including claims that he was never paid his pre-agreed profit share. Now banned from attending official fan conventions, his colorful life story merits its own full-length documentary instead of this frustratingly brief snippet.

Rather like the Millennium Falcon piggy-backing on an Imperial Battle Cruiser, Elstree 1976 is a tiny low-budget minnow of a movie surfing the huge slipstream that surrounds the Moby Dick of megabucks sci-fi franchises. This is a genial, humane project with obvious fan appeal. But for anyone expecting a definitive behind-the-scenes film about the making of Star Wars, this is not the documentary you have been looking for.

Production company: Canal Cat Films

Cast: David Prowse, Jeremy Bulloch, Derek Lyons, Pam Rose, Paul Blake, John Chapman

Director: Jon Spira

Producers: Hank Starrs, Steve Milne

Cinematography: Sonny Malhotra

Editors: Cressida Kocienski, Jon Spira, John Twycross

Music: Jamie Hyatt

Sales company: The Works

No rating, 101 minutes