There are two camps when it comes to the Star Wars franchise. Those who love it and those who are indifferent to it. I fall into the latter category. I'm one of those who has seen them all, several times, but wouldn't really call myself a fan. In fact, that one with all the Ewoks... Give me a break Lucas! So I approached this documentary about the complete unknown extras who took part in the filming, with an air of caution. Relatively unknown director Jon Spira helms what is clearly a love letter to all Star Wars fans out there. It's just unfortunate that he goes off on such boring tangents when he should be trying to romance us with tales from a galaxy far, far away.
Elstree 1976 introduces us to a handful of faces we are almost certainly unfamiliar with. Their USP is that they all appeared in varying degrees of significance behind masks in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. This ragtag bunch of unknowns include Garrick Hagon (Red Three), Laurie Goode (a Stormtrooper), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Paul Blake (Greedo) and David Prowse (Darth Vadar) to name a few. We are introduced to each of them as they discuss their feelings about being immortalised, or not as the case may be, into plastic action figures. Some are proud, some could care less and some just don't get it. But what is clear from the off is that these action figures are of characters you would never associate with these people. We then get a little more background on this group as they painstakingly recall their childhood, the areas they grew up, their careers, their loves and losses. All the while, any audience would begin to lose the will to live.
But wait! These meandering stories all culminate into a casting call for an (at the time) unknown B-grade sci-fi film called Star Wars. This is where the documentary really grabs hold of you. There is a sense of wonder and excitement, much like that of a child on Christmas Day, as this bunch of no-names reveal their first impressions of George Lucas, their first glimpse of the Millennium Falcon and their naivete of what they were about to become a part of. There are some fantastic anecdotes and stories on offer here, which is only slightly marred by the fact that it's pretty much all talking head footage from beginning to end. A particularly memorable moment was of Garrick Hagon wandering onto a soundstage covered with sand. Across the floor there was a guy sat alone. He approached him, believing him to be a runner of some sort and asked for a coffee. The guy duly obliged, returned with the coffee, Hagon asked if he knew where he could find the director, George Lucas. To which the 'runner' replied... 'Yep, that's me'.
Of course there's lots of little anecdotes and its great to hear how these extras were in awe of the stunning visuals. Some so much so that they forgot the few lines that they had to say. A few great clips from behind the scenes are on offer, but they're few and far between. It's criminal, when there's so much footage out there that we barely get to see any of it. One scene in particular that we do see though, is David Prowse in full Darth Vadar costume on set, spouting off Vadar's lines in a thick West Country accent. Prowse tells us he was concerned that his lines were going to sound too muffled due to the large helmet on his head. Lucas reassured him though that they'd get it all redubbed on a sound stage in LA. What Prowse didn't realise though was that he wouldn't be on a first class ticket to LA himself. That particular privilege would be down to the now iconic James Earl Jones.
It's while these people are telling these stories that you begin warming to them and almost forgive the director for wasting so much time telling us their fairly uninteresting back stories. But then, alas, it all comes crashing down and we are forced to endure another good 20 minutes or so of their "where are they now" stories. Again, this will put audiences to sleep. It's not that these people aren't likeable, they absolutely are for the most part, it's just that that's not what we are here for. We want to hear your Star Wars tales. We want to hear what Harrison Ford was like on set. We want to hear what it felt like to face an army of Stormtroopers for the first time. We want to know just what went on behind the scenes and behind the doors of Elstree in 1976. Unfortunately, we must be happy with the titbits that are thrown our way.
Spira does again almost redeem himself, when he interviews all our participants about their experience at Star Wars conventions around the world. It does get slightly interesting again here, particularly when Prowse talks about being dictated to by Hollywood executives that he should not sign his autograph as the man who "is" Darth Vadar, but rather as the man who "appeared as" Darth Vadar. It's also quite fun to hear each of these unlikely lads try to claim that they were the Stormtrooper who bumped their head in that iconic scene or that they were the pilot who made Mark Hamill laugh in the final scene of the movie. It's all quite interesting and funny for a while again.
The documentary closes with a look to the future for all of these people. Unfortunately, while it may mean everything to them, it means nothing to us. If they aren't telling us Star Wars stories, they are just people telling us stories about their lives. When their lives are not that much different to yours or mine, then what's the point? What sets them apart is that they are forever connected to a piece of cinematic history. Spira's greatest moments in this film are when he remembers that and in those moments the film shines.
EXTRAS: There's an audio commentary from director Jon Spira; Extended Interviews (43:44); the featurette Elstree 2016: Return to Elstree Studios (11:26); the featurette High Flight (1:04); and the Trailer (2:23).