Fame can be a funny thing. Andy Warhol’s famous axiom “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” has long passed into the realm of cliché. In 1991, the Scottish musician Momus revised Warhol’s prediction to “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 people.” What in those days of internet infancy might have sounded like a smart-ass quip would be proved much more insightful by the rise of social media. The idea of celebrity has been refashioned in such a way many people take on its trappings themselves. Everyone has at least one “friend” who is constantly updating their status as if they were the Princess of Wales being tracked by the paparazzi at every turn. Human nature is drawn to stories of success. In the same way pilgrims once venerated a third class relic (something which touched something directly connected to a saint), audiences soak up the exploits of people indirectly connected to larger events. It brings them closer the object of their devotion. In this case, the beloved is Star Wars, as seen through the prism of the new documentary Elstree 1976.
Elstree 1976 focuses on some of the less famous names involved with making the original film. Some of these played prominent characters, yet are less recognizable due to their faces being obscured by masks. The best example of this would be David Prowse’s Darth Vader or (in the documentary’s sole step outside A New Hope), Jeremy Bulloch’s Boba Fett. Others appear in small, yet iconic roles, such as Paul Blake’s Greedo. Some though are extras in crowd scenes or a head briefly glimpsed over a more conspicuous character’s shoulder. This lack of spoken dialogue though has not been a barrier to renown within Star Wars fandom. Fans are thrilled to interact with the franchise on whatever level possible.
If this sounds as if it could be condescending, it is to the filmmaker’s credit that it never comes off that way. Director Jon Spira never mocks the fans for a cheap laugh. True, we all know that one person who fits the Comic Book Guy stereotype or the speculator lugging a crate of merchandise around a con, more concerned with profit than pleasure. However, these sorts are in the minority. Bulloch may affectionately joke about the time he was queried why Boba Fett’s head tilted in a certain way in one scene (“was thinking about lunch” is Bulloch’s reply), but it is not mean-spirited. Indeed, if any of Spira’s interview subjects had anything nasty to say about the fans, it has been left out of the film. As one participant concedes: “we’re all obsessive about something.”
Elstree 1976 is made up entirely of interviews with several former cast members. As stated above, everyone, with the exception of Bulloch, appeared in A New Hope. (The documentary’s title refers to the London studio, Elstree, where much of the movie was filmed). The documentary breaks down into roughly three sections. In the first, the actors discuss their backgrounds and what led them to walking onto the Elstree soundstage. These recollections are interesting as the present a varied portrait of the cast members. Some came to acting through music (one performed as child in Music Hall, roughly the British equivalent of Vaudeville), a couple from modeling. Prowse’s original dream was to be Mr. Universe, but was told that his imperfect feet would prevent that from ever happening. So, he ended up in movies carrying Malcom McDowell up and down a staircase for A Clockwork Orange. What unites almost all their younger selves is a drive to follow their dreams.
The second component of Elstree discusses the filming of Star Wars (or The Star Wars as it was still being called). The focus here is narrow, so viewers should not expect a detailed recounting of the movie’s production. However, the assorted recollections do provide a flavor of what working on the movie was like. George Lucas is remembered as a quiet, if approachable director. Unsurprisingly, everyone says what a nice, charming guy Mark Hamil was. The onset atmosphere is compared to that of an indie movie. The whole endeavor has an air of flying by the seat of your pants, such as the ad hoc pyrotechnics for Greedo’s death scene. These discussions also serve to remind viewers how much hands work was part of this film. Pam Rose, the sole woman interviewed for the documentary, talks about the elaborate hours of makeup she endured just to play a background character in the Cantina. Almost all of them claim to have been impressed by what Lucas was doing, even if one admits to assuming that the film would be going straight to TV. No one tries to claim that they foresaw what would actually happen.
Which leads to the third part of Elstree, in which, the various participants discuss their current fame. Pretty much all of them have put in some time on the convention circuit. Some are quickly burnt out, while others keep at it. Prowse claims that signings are his primary source of income. Here is where the tensions rise. There is discontent between certain parties, some of who feel that extras should not be encouraged to partake in cons, while others consider having one or no lines of dialogue still more memorable than playing an entire movie with a “tin can” on their head. Spira does not take sides in this debate, letting each opinion speak for itself. In a way, it does seem weird that fans could get so excited about and pony up the money for someone whose primary contribution to 39 years of Star Wars is saying “These are not the droids we’re looking for.” Yet, in the end, why begrudge the fans their chance to experience a little of their passion firsthand?
Spira does not delve as deeply into some of these themes as could have done, however, I suspect that was never his intention. Instead, he has assembled an entertaining movie which also reminds fans of some of the reasons they originally fell in love with Star Wars. At the same time, it does leave viewers with intriguing questions about the nature of fame in the 21st Century.
Where do we go next from everyone being famous to 15 people?
Elstree 1976 is currently available in limited theatrical release and streaming via Amazon