Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: 'Elstree 1976'

Elstree 1976 is being marketed as the latest in a long line of Star Wars documentaries, but it’s also the latest in a not-as-long line of documentaries about character actors and extras. Director Jon Spira filmed several actors who (mostly) did bit parts in the most popular movies ever made. Along with David Prowse, who played the body of Darth Vader, and Jeremy “Boba Fett” Bulloch, there are actors who played relatively major minor characters like Greedo and Biggs Darklighter, a few notable extras (the stormtrooper who clunks his head against a pneumatic door and the one who gets Jedi mind-tricked by Obi Wan Kenobi), and several people who play passing blurs in the background. Before seeing this film, I had no idea there was a waitress in the Mos Eisley Cantina. I certainly didn’t know she was a former “Ready, Steady, Go” dancer.

These actors didn’t expect much from what they expected would be just another job, they were left out of the initial mania when Star Wars turned out to be much more than that, and they finally got a taste of it on the fan convention circuit years later. The film is most interesting during the twenty minutes that they describe their experiences working on the film, revealing George Lucas’s somewhat dehumanizing grading system for placing auditioners in roles, his hasty method of filming the X-Wing attacks on the Death Star, and in the case of the guys who played Biggs Darklighter and Fixer, their reactions to discovering most of their work had been cut from the film.

To a lesser extent, fans will be interested in the sequence on fan conventions. Bulloch fretting over leaking ink on some fan’s Boba Fett poster isn’t exactly high drama, but it gets fairly juicy when actors start dishing on who does and doesn’t deserve to be selling their autographs at these conventions and Prowse explains how he feels his contribution to the films have been minimized and how such comments have gotten him barred from conventions.

As a story of the thankless job of being a film extra, Elstree 1976 basically gets the job done as the actors discuss the struggles and successes of their work (there’s a great clip of Prowse in a road-safety PSA with an R2-D2 type robot), bouncing around in different vocations and avocations between acting gigs, and personal lives sometimes tainted by depression and bitterness (Greedo seems really happy,though), though Spira could have made the telling a lot more dynamic by not relying so heavily on talking-head shots. As a Star Wars story, Elstree 1976 is fulfilling in fits and starts, and may make fans wish the new DVD had at least contained some bonus footage with more behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
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