There are about 20 minutes during the new Star Wars documentary Elstree 1976 that made me happier than I’ve been watching a movie in a long time. It’s when the 10 actors who star in the film are telling amazing, fascinating stories from the set of Star Wars. Stories no one has ever heard before.
Unfortunately, the film never regains that excitement.
Directed by Jon Spira, Elstree 1976 is the story of 10 actors who appeared in the original Star Wars. Some of these people you now know, but 99% of the world wouldn’t—that’s because their faces were either behind a mask, cut out, or so far in the background you never noticed them. But they were present when history was made and they have the stories to prove it. Wonderful stories like an actor asking George Lucas to get him coffee or another getting flipped off by Mark Hamill. The rest of the film, however, feels like different branches off the main Star Wars tree, some of which are far less interesting than others.
Of the actors who make up Elstree 1976, Greedo (Paul Blake), Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), Darth Vader (David Prowse) and Biggs Darklighter (Garrick Hagon) are the most recognizable of the bunch. There’s also the guy who hit his head as a Stormtrooper in the Death Star, Rebel pilot Dutch, the man who played deleted character Fixer, a background X-Wing fighter and a few others. Using these 10 people, the film is basically broken into four parts.
Elstree 1976 starts by telling getting us acquainted with these people (with the exception of Bulloch, who comes in later). We find out who they are now and who they were then. Then we find out how they got into Star Wars and the movie soars. You rarely get to hear the kind of personal, intimate perspective on Star Wars that these actors offer and it’s truly fascinating.
That second section of the film then pivots into talk about these people making a living on the convention circuit, which is both heartwarming, heartbreaking, and even includes some behind-the-scenes drama. It’s the second best part of the movie because it’s still Star Wars-based and it offers a fresh perspective on something many of us are familiar with.
Then, finally, the film catches up with the actors now, offering a perspective on their time in the film and juxtaposing it with who they are today. Unfortunately, the simple fact is as interesting and nice all of these people are, none of them come close to being as interesting as the Star Wars stories themselves.
Spira tries to link all of the sections of the film with an overarching humanity and sadness about fame, the inevitability of aging, living a full life and more. It certainly makes for some nice moments but it never all quite comes together. Moreover, the film never recovers from having its best moments in the second act. There’s a very strong structure here but it’s simply not very satisfying. After those on-set stories, everything feels like a letdown. (Several moments of the film also have a very odd, conspiracy theory feel as the film pauses on frames of Star Wars, then move forward and back like a gif to focus on the actor it’s talking about. It makes sense, but it’s super odd.)
There’s no doubt fans of Star Wars will enjoy Elstree 1976. The 20 or so minutes talking about filming the first movie, and the insight into the world of conventions are really, truly great. But the rest of the movie is a very standard, albeit nice, documentary.
Elstree 1976 opens in limited release May 6. Find the film here.
Update 3/9/2021: We were alerted that the above link was broken so we updated the link to add streaming options.