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'Elstree 1976' shines spotlight on bit players of original 'Star Wars'

“How many actors can say that they’ve got their own action figure?” That’s one of the first lines of the Kickstarter-funded documentary “Elstree 1976,” and that concept, more than any other, captures what makes the film unique.

Charming if occasionally dull, somewhat sad but also frequently moving, director Jon Spira’s film offers some of the bit players and extras from “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” the opportunity to take center stage, and to reflect on their small but integral parts in the movie that changed the world.

And reflect they do, for roughly 101 minutes. This is both a positive and a negative.

After all, these figures – among them is David Prowse, aka Darth Vader – have incredible stories to tell. They were situated on the front lines of cinematic history, and their faces and voices have been watched, paused and rewatched for nearly four decades.

Director Spira miscalculates, however, by simply including too many individuals. The audience gets to know them well, but there are too many talking heads to keep track of, and simply too many stories to hear.

Still, “Elstree 1976” is a must-see for “Star Wars” fanatics, and coming shortly after the much-hyped franchise adrenaline shot that is “The Force Awakens,” it’s almost shocking to hear firsthand accounts of the first film’s way-under-the-radar status.

This is a recurring theme when it comes to George Lucas’ first chapter in the Skywalker saga: “We thought it was going to be on TV,” says one actor. “There wasn’t a lot of certainty as to what it might be.”

Some of the actors, like Paul Blake (Greedo) and Garrick Hagon (Biggs), had minor careers at the time they were cast. Some were more wet behind the ears. All had no idea the project then known as “The Star Wars” would amount to anything at all.

Blake has one of the film’s most humorous anecdotes. Arriving on the Elstree Studios set, he encountered the stunningly massive Millennium Falcon, and was so taken aback he asked a nearby crew member to fetch him a coffee. Said crew member turned out to be, of course, bearded maestro George Lucas.

The making-of tales can be humorous, especially one cast member’s story of being the stormtrooper who infamously bumped his head during a scene on the Death Star. (It’s infamous because the scene is still in the finished film.) Others have a more somber, sad feel.

Most fascinating are the descriptions of first seeing “A New Hope” on the big screen, and discovering that this was indeed a zeitgeist-capturing pop culture phenomenon. (Blake jumped out of his seat, pointed to Greedo, and yelled, “That’s me!”)

It takes some time to get to these memories. Spira spends so much screen time introducing the audience to each actor that after the first few minutes, it takes another 25 minutes for “Star Wars” to be mentioned again. What this method does is establish real intimacy with the interviewees.

Still, the director runs the risk of losing his viewers’ attention. And that, really, is the only logical criticism of “Elstree 1976.” You need to already care about Greedo, Biggs and Boba Fett to care about “Elstree.”

The “Star Wars” convention circuit is covered in the film’s last half hour or so, and this, too, is fertile ground. There is some jealousy involved, and criticism of extras who now work the convention scene. One actor, an X-wing pilot with a speaking part, voices the belief that only those with dialogue should be signing and appearing.

That’s a valid argument, but whatever one thinks, it’s another reason why Spira’s style is effective. He lingers on these faces and slowly drinks in their words. In doing so, he provides them with the starring role they’ve never had.

Perhaps “Elstree 1976” is most successful when considered a particularly comprehensive Blu-ray extra. While on its own the film is a modest achievement, as a “Star Wars” supplement it’s a unique historical document.


“Elstree 1976”

3 stars (out of four)

Featuring: David Prowse, Jeremy Bulloch, Derek Lyons, Pam Rose, Paul Blake, John Chapman

Director: Jon Spira

Running time: 101 minutes

Rating: Unrated but PG equivalent.

The lowdown: Documentary about the secondary actors and extras from the original “Star Wars” film.

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