Longer version of piece published by Sight & Sound as part of coverage of the Cult programme at the London Film Festival 2015
All cults need their icons (the kitschier the better), and so Jon Spira’s Elstree 1976 – a talking-heads documentary based around that ultimate world-building, life-changing cult movie, 1977’s Star Wars (and, to a lesser extent, its 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back) – opens with the ultimate fetish item for cult cinema, the action figure, as we hear voiceovers from the real people whose fictive images those objects have enshrined and carbon-frozen.
Neither a making-of feature, nor a piece of straightforward fan worship, this documentary traces the way a motley crew of bit players were drawn into the Star Wars orbit, and are, some four decades later, still living, to a greater or lesser degree, in its shadow. In this sense, it is also about us – for while George Lucas’ original film was made a long time ago, we are all still caught in its tractor beam. Here Star Wars is both a real film, put together by legions of ordinary people one year in a London studio – and it is a metaphor for the Force of culture itself, which both connects and changes all who pass through it.
Fanboys who approach this documentary looking for anecdotal tidbits on their favourite film/franchise/universe will not be disappointed, for the key interviewees certainly discuss their marginal rôles in the massive production. Yet Elstree 1976 is more interested in these actors’ lives before and after, real-world prequels and sequels to an explosive cultural phenomenon whose ripple effects we are still feeling today. There is a new Star Wars sequel due in cinemas at the end of this year, but Spira instead wisely focuses on memories of the original, whether preserved at fan conventions or in plastic.