None of us should give a crap about anything anyone says in Elstree 1976, but such is the nature of modern fandom that we do — even those of us whose affection for Star Wars is now more an occasional indulgence than a heated obsession. Jon Spira’s documentary is a collection of interviews with some of the supporting performers, bit players and extras who had the good fortune to wind up in George Lucas’ generation-defining space opera, back when it was just another production shooting on a British soundstage. Many of these folks now spend their time on the convention and fan circuit, where they are often greeted with adoration and deluged by autograph seekers — all for having been a random soldier in the background of a shot, or an unnamed pilot who had a line or two, or an alien who got killed.
The film offers no great new revelations, no shocking anecdotes, no amazing stories of recognition or celebrity. Spira doesn’t give us much context, save for some brief flashes of faked behind-the-scenes footage: an X-wing pilot eating a sandwich, or two Stormtroopers on a cigarette break. The music is a kind of soft, lilting drone, as in so many indies. The director clearly is going out of his way to differentiate his film from the Star Wars aesthetic as much as possible.
So he gets these people talking, one after the other, in a blur of reflections and anecdotes about workaday things. Paul Blake, who was the guy in the Greedo mask, relates how they had to use a dummy for the money shot of him actually getting blown away by Han Solo — which is his character’s claim to fame. Garrick Hagon, who played Luke Skywalker’s friend Biggs, recalls how he first felt upon learning that his big scene had been excised from the film — and how special it now seems that he’s become somewhat famous as a guy who was cut from Star Wars.
There’s an actor who played the Stormtrooper who accidentally (and famously!) hit his head in the background of one shot. Somewhat incongruously, there’s also David Prowse, who actually played Darth Vader; I’m not entirely sure why he’s here, since he had a pretty major part, even if it was behind a mask and his voice was replaced by James Earl Jones'. But it’s all cut together in such a way that we eventually forget who was who and who played what, and their words blend together into a kind of miasmic totality — an Oversoul for Star Wars day-players.
But again, why should we even care? Maybe it’s the idea of unremarkable lives lived in the shadow of something remarkable, mythic. Or maybe there’s a kind of authenticity in the recollections of ordinary people who have nothing to lose or gain. When movie stars talk about other movie stars — especially in this world of hyper-managed press and carefully stewarded public profiles — it means pretty much nothing. But when an extra says that Mark Hamill was a nice guy, you’re inclined to believe.
The most interesting part of Elstree 1976 comes when these actors express ambivalence about their odd celebrity. They are not deluded: They understand that their fame comes thanks to mostly anonymous work. In several cases, it took some convincing by others to even get these people to appear at various conventions and fan events. “I'm a serious actor,” Blake exclaims. “I've played Macbeth. And on my tombstone, it will say, ‘Here Lies Greedo’!” He says it, however, with very little bitterness. Mostly, he seems bemused, and it’s clear that he’s made his peace with the idea.
Maybe that’s why Elstree 1976 will ultimately make audiences care: We recognize something of ourselves in these people. In their ability to accept who they have become, and who they are not, they reflect an essential truth about life. Blake, as Macbeth, would have uttered Shakespeare’s bleak, tragic line, “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more.” As Greedo, he lived it — and found some unlikely joy in it.