Filmmaker Jon Spira’s documentary Elstree 1976 looks back at George Lucas’ Star Wars, celebrating the creative process, Elstree Studios’ contribution to its production, and the legacy left behind.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Hanging on to past glories however fleeting only blinds you to the opportunities ahead in my opinion. And if any documentary were ripe to explore this notion then Elstree 1976 heads the queue. This may sound like slanderous condemnation but these words take on another meaning altogether when you know the topic is Star Wars.
Documented in more remastered editions than anyone should sensibly purchase, Star Wars remains the mould breaker which coined and created the blockbuster. Researched and explored within the framework of a Seventies cinema culture in flux through Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, Star Wars can be seen as both financial liberator and metaphorical millstone. It shaped a generation of filmmakers, separated a fledgling director from his arthouse aspirations and singlehandedly shackled him to a multinational in one stroke.
Created through the merchandising behind Star Wars and subsequently sold to Disney, Lucasfilm stands as testament to what true autonomy costs. There is little doubt that much good has come from Star Wars, yet for all that there is a tinge of sadness which seeps between the cracks of Elstree and raises questions. There are those who have used the notoriety however substantiated as a springboard, allowing them financial gain through convention appearances and the like. While others have bitten the hand that feeds and been cut off by corporate which makes things much more interesting.
Told in a series of talking head interviews from players both major and minor, Elstree 1976 uses limited archive footage, freeze frame Star Wars stills and period pictures to expand on detail. Very little insight about the film itself is forthcoming as I imagine Lucasfilm kept a tight rein on content approval. But if there had been more peppered throughout then Elstree 1976 as a documentary would have been much more satisfying. That being said what we do see gives film anoraks like myself what we crave; namely anecdotal titbits for mental storage.
John Spira has done a great deal here to remind people what made Star Wars so special. While other have said much in the wake of The Force Awakens regarding plot, structure, narrative and character beat similarities between the two, still more have built critical cases putting nostalgia at the core of Awakens' popularity, but thankfully Elstree avoids this completely. Instead it stands alone as a visual document of a film fiercely lionised by millions, dubiously feted for condoning a fictitious religion and ensuring tent pole movies continue to define creativity. Even so Elstree 1976 remains an enjoyable piece of filmmaking which sheds light on Star Wars from a fresh angle adding much to the mythology without dampening enthusiasm or souring further experience.