Whenever an artist begins a new piece of work, they embark on a path with two possible outcomes. “Sometimes the magic happens,” as one writer puts it in the SXSW documentary A Disturbance in the Force. “… and sometimes, it’s The Star Wars Holiday Special.”
(Disclosure: Allegra Frank, a Daily Beast’s Obsessed editor, is a member of the SXSW documentary jury. She was not involved in coverage of any documentaries or editing of the story.)
A Disturbance in the Force premiered Saturday in Austin, and unravels the unbelievable but completely true story behind one of pop culture’s most infamous lost relics. (Plus, a few rumors.) Playful in tone and absolutely stacked with sources who either worked on or spent their youths obsessed with the special, the doc will entertain devoted and casual Star Wars fans alike. Plus, it’s a solid reminder of just how many people wound up in this thing who had absolutely no business being there. (As in, how did Diahann Carroll end up talking dirty to a grandpa Wookiee in what might be the most bizarre music video of her career?!)
For the uninitiated, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” debuted in 1978 on CBS and has been disavowed by George Lucas and most of the cast. The plot? Well, do you remember how Chewbacca never got a medal at the end of the original Star Wars? It turns out, that’s because he has no want for such material things; instead, he just wanted Han to fly him back to his home planet for the Wookiee holiday Life Day (which exceptionally ardent fans now celebrate on the date the special debuted, Nov. 17.) And so, in the special, viewers watch as Luke, Leia, and Han accompany Chewie home to the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk for Life Day, where we meet the whole Chewb-amily. (There’s also an extended animated section dedicated to Boba Fett, which is honestly still pretty sick.)
In order to properly unpack how the holiday special became the specific kind of mess that it was, directors Jeremy Koon and Steve Kozak take viewers back to the beginning, when Star Wars was still a fledgling media property desperate to keep itself in the public eye. One of the most fascinating sections of the documentary discusses how the marketer Charley Lippincott used a new, fandom-oriented strategy to make Star Wars a hit in the first place. Once the movie that would become A New Hope came out, A Disturbance in the Force tells us, the goal was to keep Star Wars on the public’s mind as much as possible while work began on its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. The key strategy point? Variety specials, the medium of the era.
As we learn, however, the mess on this project began early, and it piled up through the production. The show’s producers were not sci-fi people or Star Wars fans; their wheelhouse was, you guessed it, variety shows. In light of Star Wars’ tremendous box office success, however, CBS chose to blow the initially one-hour special into a two-hour extravaganza. And when George Lucas got busy with The Empire Strikes Back, he slowly detached himself from the project, which would later switch directors after falling behind schedule. The art budget ran out toward the end, leaving the crew scouring for candles they set up themselves the morning of the final sequence. And in the end, director Steve Binder admits he regrets that this is the one production he didn’t bother to edit. As Binder put it at one point, “The whole purpose of this show was to sell toys to kids.’
In some ways, A Disturbance in the Force acts as a time machine for younger viewers who might not know about or remember the wacky specials that became TV’s bread and butter during the 1970s. Against a backdrop of Brady Bunch musical events and themed variety shows, the Star Wars special would not seem nearly as bizarre as it does now, divorced from its original context. Even in its time, however, this was not a piece of art that attracted a lot of appreciation. Many fans tuned into the CBS event expecting something like a sequel to the original Star Wars, which would later be retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Instead, they got Bea Arthur singing and dancing with a walrus man and an oversized rat.
“Many fans tuned into the CBS event expecting something like a sequel to the original Star Wars. Instead, they got Bea Arthur singing and dancing with a walrus man and an oversized rat.”
Koon and Kozak have assembled an army of sources to match the magnitude of the franchise they’re covering. Writers Bruce Vilanch and Lenny Ripps, both of whom worked on the special, are veritable quote machines. (Ripps, who provided the “magic” quote for the doc, wryly told the documentarians, “We thought this was going to be our annuity—that this holiday show would run every year for eternity.) Equally delightful are additional sources including “Holiday Special” crew members, former Lucasfilm execs, Kevin Smith, Seth Green (who worked with Lucas for years on the unaired animated Star Wars parody Star Wars Detours), “Weird Al” Yankovic, Taran Killam, and Gilbert Gottfried—all of whom show up to provide color and contextualize the maligned special’s now-coveted place in the fandom.
These sources talk us through anecdotes both verified and unverified about “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” A confirmed detail: Han Solo really was, according to George Lucas, married to a Wookiee in the special—”but we can’t say that,” Ripps recalls Lucas saying. And a fun rumor? Supposedly, Robin Williams (who had already appeared on Happy Days as Mork but had not yet launched his subsequent show Mork and Mindy) was going to be in the special and he got turned down because the executives behind the special wanted a big name. Whoops!
Clocking in at an hour and 26 minutes, A Disturbance in the Force keeps things relatively chronological. The doc can get a little repetitive, a common pitfall in these projects, but the proceedings are entertaining enough to smooth over the redundant patches. Visually, things unfold roughly how one might expect: Supplemental materials to the documentarians’ interview footage include archival footage from the special and clips from various shows and films that have referenced the Star Wars Holiday Special and its bad reputation over the years. (Think: The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory, the Robot Chicken Star Wars specials, The Goldbergs, and a Harrison Ford interview with Conan O’Brien for good measure.)
Ultimately, the greatest strength of A Disturbance in the Force is how it not only celebrates a bizarre cultural artifact but also makes the effort to put it in the context of its time and establish the ways in which it was actually not so weird in its day. The doc urges viewers to appreciate the experimental aspects of the production, even if not all of them worked.
Before the doc closes, we also take a moment to reflect on what it means that Lucas—whose principal cast all appeared in the production—chose so early and decisively to disavow the project. Seth Green recalls Lucas telling him that at one point, “I did ask if there was a way that we couldn’t air it. Did it have to air? But it was a lot of money, and it had to air.” Binder, meanwhile, made a point to say he’s never met Lucas—”all I heard was that he tried to buy the negatives.” As Ripps put it, “I have my name on all the good things I’ve done and all the bad things I’ve done. But maybe if I could have taken my name off the bad things, I would have.”
For diehard fans, however, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” will always be a crucial, if confounding, entry in the canon. As author Jonathan Rinzler, who wrote The Making of Star Wars aptly put it, the special “was kind of the one big thing that Lucasfilm did before it got its act together… to make sure that things like this never happened again.”
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