‘Elstree, remember me, I played a part in a B Movie…’ ran the unpopular follow-up to The Buggles’s iconic hit Video Killed the Radio Star. The song offers a sense of sadness for a bygone time, and there’s a similarly morbid pall over writer/director Jon Spira’s documentary about the bit-part players from 1977’s Star Wars, which is about as far from an upbeat making–of featurette as can be imaginable. Long on wistful anecdotes, short on fan-boy-pleasing details, Elstree 1976 is a more melancholy proposition than might be expected; there’s hidden depths here for fans and novices alike.
This Kickstarter-fuelled production will interest fans of the Skywalker saga, sure, but they might be turned off by the results. In the manner of PT Anderson’s Magnolia, this is a multiple-character story about a group of eccentric British jobbing actors who, by accident as much as by design, land roles in George Lucas’ celebrated sci-fi adventure. Some, like Dave Prowse and Jeremy Bulloch, are resigned to having buckets on their heads and not being recognised. Others have to be satisfied with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos that only their friends initially notice.
Spira spends a long time exploring their families, their background and their careers, and the details of how they got their parts are fascinating. The actual making of Star Wars only takes around 20 minutes of the film, and then a lengthy tail depicts how they initially ignored their brief encounter with stardom, but came to love lucrative fan conventions, even if their roles ended on the cutting room floor. Biggs, bumping storm-trooper heads and other key issues are discussed, plus Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s exotic sand dance.
What’s interesting here is the snapshot of the British acting community in 1976; few of the actors realised that this was their moment, and that the rest of their lives would be spend dining out on this fleeting time in the sun. So there’s an inbuilt melancholy as one performer after another reflects on what they dreamt of for their career, and the rather different reality they found. Spira fakes up amusing interstitials featuring the costumes from the film being prepared, aiming to capture the feeling of being on the original set. We even see the toys which were made in the likeness of the players featured here, their youth immortalised in plastic forever. And the key theme is that a hierarchy is created, with those with speaking parts looking down on those who only appeared, who look down on those who didn’t get their faces in front of the camera. Any similarity to the British class system is purely coincidental.
Almost like Michael Apted’s popular Up series of documentaries, following a group of children as they grow into adults, Elstree 1976 is a bittersweet portrait of dreams fulfilled and destroyed, about how life somehow finds a way to give you what you want in a way that you don’t. Of interest to fans, sure, but also to anyone interested in acting, nostalgia for British life in the 1970’s, or just what it might feel like to have a tiny bit part in arguably the most beloved film of all time.