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Jon Spira's Elstree 1976: memorialising the unseen performers in the first Star Wars

Jon Spira's forthcoming documentary Elstree 1976 focuses on the Star Wars cast members time forgot: from voice-artists to extras and wookiees.

Darth Vader.
Fans want to memorialise every wookiee and cranny. Photograph: Getty Images.

I’m feeling excited about the new Star Wars film. No, not Episode VII, which will continue the franchise beyond the end of Return of the Jedi—though my hopes for that were raised once I heard that the dead hand of George Lucas was not being allowed anywhere near the steering wheel. (JJ Abrams, the Lost creator who did a splendid job of rebooting Star Trek for cinema a few years back, is in charge.) An idiosyncratic cast list (Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis) has also made the prospect of Episode VII marginally more enticing, though I would still draw the line at the word “excitement.” We 1977ers, who saw the first Star Wars film on its release, and then experienced in adulthood the betrayal of the most recent trilogy (beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace), are a hard bunch to placate. We hold grudges.

The Star Wars movie that I’m really looking forward to, though, is a documentary called Elstree 1976, which is nearing the end of its Kickstarter campaign to raise £30,000 toward the costs of post-production. The target has already been met, so the film’s future is looking bright; you can see an early trailer, and read details about the project here.

Unlike other Star Wars documentaries, this one focuses on the unseen performers in the margins on the set of the first film: the extras and bit-players hidden behind Stormtrooper masks and alien faces in the Cantina, or under Rebel helmets with their faces turned just slightly away from the camera. Some of these are known to us already—such as David Prowse, who played Darth Vader in body (though not voice) in the first three Star Wars movies, and had also starred in A Clockwork Orange and become famous as the Green Cross Code Man.

But many of the subjects of Elstree 1976 (so named because of where Star Wars was made) are barely even household names in their own streets. If the trailer is anything to go by, the director Jon Spira has coaxed warm, revealing and sometimes melancholy reminiscences from people who have found themselves defined by their involvement, however tangential, with a pop-culture phenomenon. The mood seems to be Rosencrantz and Guildernstern in Space.

Spira has form in this field. His previous documentary was Anyone Can Play Guitar, a film about the Oxford music scene which displayed a similar fondness for the names destined to be footnotes to footnotes if they weren’t omitted altogether. Although bands like Radiohead, Supergrass and Ride appear in the movie, the focus shifts to the ones who never quite made it: your Talulah Gosh, your Unbelievable Truth. Star Wars cast members who feared they might never get their due can at least rest easy. Their stories are now in the hands of a filmmaker who specialises in a tender kind of cultural restitution.