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Elstree 1976 DVD Review

Elstree 1976 DVD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Elstree 1976
Movie & DVD Details

Director: Jon Spira / Producers: Hank Starrs, Steve Milne

Interview Subjects: Paul Blake, Jeremy Bulloch, John Chapman, Anthony Forrest, Laurie Goode, Garrick Hagon, Derek Lyons, Angus MacInnes, David Prowse, Pam Rose

Video Premiere: June 28, 2016 / Running Time: 101 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Not Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95 / Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5) / Black Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($29.95 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

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Elstree 1976 is the time and place where perhaps the most iconic film of all time was shot. George Lucas' original Star Wars was produced at Elstree Studios in the United Kingdom. With that title, this new documentary from director Jon Spira breeds expectations of a tell-all retrospective, but that's not quite what you get.

Spira's film, funded in part by nearly 1,000 backers on Kickstarter, interviews ten actors who held roles in the game-changing space saga and/or its sequels. The biggest of the ten in stature and status is David Prowse,
who played Darth Vader in the original Episodes IV-VI trilogy. Other subjects include the men inside the Greedo and Boba Fett costumes, a character who was deleted, and the stormtrooper who infamously bumped his head, though others have also taken credit for that well-documented goof.

The actors, who are initially identified by first name and -- if applicable -- action figure, recall fighting the heat while filming in the summer of '76. They describe the atmosphere as more an independent film than a studio one and confess not even knowing who the director was well into the shoot. Their stories about making the movie are not particularly special, but each makes a point to indicate that though life-changing the experience has not entirely defined their lives. (However, glimpses at other activities -- developing a derivative martial arts form, pitching a comic book to school children -- might be more noteworthy to the parodists of "Documentary Now!" than general viewers.) Most of them discuss their families, upbringings and careers. Again, these topics aren't particularly remarkable and can probably be echoed by many who spent the '70s acting in movies in the UK.

(Authentic?) behind-the-scenes footage shows a couple of long-haired storm troopers enjoying a break from filming in "Elstree 1976." Before he was Darth Vader, David Prowse played Green Cross Man, a superhero helping British children cross the street safely.

Their contributions to the franchise are zoomed in and looped like unusually short Vines or the Zapruder film. There is a tiny bit of cool (hopefully authentic) behind-the-scenes footage from filming. Not surprisingly, this production does not have permission to use much footage or any score from Lucasfilm's multi-billion dollar universe.

The dramatic presentation suggested by the opening's white screens, fadeouts, and close-ups of action figures soon gives way to a fairly standard talking heads documentary. Elstree 1976 is reasonably engaging, but it never shakes the feel of an overlong bonus feature you might check out on.

The film as its best near the end, as these (mostly former) actors discuss the fan conventions that contribute to their livelihoods.
A little contention emerges, as the actors voice some concern over their code that only credited performers, not extras, should attend these events of autographs and photo ops. John Chapman seems to be one example of some dispute, as he took credit for being an X-wing pilot, but then backed off on it.

Prowse hints at other conflict, claiming he has been banned from two major Star Wars events and received some flak for signing pictures as "David Prowse is Darth Vader." Fascinatingly, he reveals that he did not expect another actor to overdub him, though he credits James Earl Jones for his vocal contributions to what many consider screen's ultimate villain. Seems like there is more to Prowse's story that the movie should have gone into; other highlights include his stories of working with Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange and portraying street safety superhero Green Cross Man.

Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader) is among the old Star Wars actors interviewed in "Elstree 1976." The story of the Fixer, a deleted character that Anthony Forrest played, is detailed.

There is a sense of sadness to these later scenes, as these aging British, American, and Canadian performers acknowledge that nothing else in their professional lives will ever mean as much as their generally minor and/or masked appearances in these bit parts. Paul Blake has the movie's best line in declaring that for all his highbrow theatre work, he knows full well that his tombstone will read "Here lies Greedo" and he thinks it's fantastic.

After premiering at last October's London Film Festival and also screening in Spain a week later, Elstree 1976 hits home video this week from MVD Visual. Though announced as a DVD-only release (and that was went was sent for this review), a Blu-ray edition has since shown up on Amazon.

VIDEO and AUDIO

You never know what to expect from a partially crowdfunded documentary distributed by a small company. Elstree 1976 looks okay on DVD, though its original footage often looks older than it is and the lighting isn't always the best. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is adequate. You may not hear much difference between the default Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and a Dolby 2.0 stereo mix. English SDH subtitles are kindly supplied.

The Elstree 1976 DVD main menu is as basic as can be.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

You'd expect to find some bonus materials on what is evidently a passion project, but you get no such luxuries here.

The three static, silent menu screens are as basic as can be.

No inserts accompany the black and white disc inside the plain black keepcase.

Fans at a convention show their love of Star Wars in an original trilogy poster they will get signed. John Chapman, who used to take credit for playing a Star Wars pilot, no longer does, now instead sharing his Jonnie Rocket comic books with school children.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Elstree 1976 is somewhat misleadingly titled, as it is less about the making of Star Wars than about what that experience has meant in the lives of actors who played mostly small parts in the series. Short on behind-the-scenes footage and on remarkable stories, the documentary gives you a greater appreciation of these largely unknown performers who continue to reap the benefits of their casting forty years ago and not much more. It's something for Star Wars diehards to see, but may underwhelm those entering with high expectations.

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Reviewed June 28, 2016.



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