If you’re Gen X or “geriatric” Gen Y star wars fanatic, you probably have a story related to the contortions you had to go through to get your hands on the famous-only-aired-once 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special.
First year. Andrew, my college roommate, brought back a bootleg tape – there was never a legitimate release – given to him by a guy who knew a guy at his regular comic book store. We watched with breathless anticipation that turned into questioning horror – a generational rite of passage.
A disturbance in the Force
A mixture of too easy jokes and interesting ideas.
Today you can go to YouTube and choose from several Star Wars Holiday Special downloads, at least one of which has remained active for seven years and has 3.6 million views. So much for the taboo. So much for resourcefulness. So much for magic.
Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s new documentary A disturbance in the Force captures a lot of what was illicit and confusing about the special. Some of his teasing and many of his nerd-friendly celebrity talking heads – Seth Green! Kevin Smith! Paul Scher! — are predictable, but when it’s not poking fun at iconic trash moments, it offers an insightful exploration of the special’s production and setting.
Anyone who has seen it can and will tell you why The Star Wars Holiday Special is campy or silly. But in the how and why of this silliness and countryness, there are some very interesting details about the state of television in the 1970s, the way star wars and its ancillary offshoots have changed Hollywood, as well as the very nature of failure and how we respond to it. A disturbance in the Force has enough of those details to be more than just nostalgic banter.
Go in A disturbance in the Force, you can already guess many key players who will not be participating. George Lucas condemned the special and generally refused to talk about it. All the core star wars the actors, roped into the special during the brief window they had no power to resist, have stepped back in their memories during talk show and convention appearances over the years; they are present in these archival images, but nothing new. Most of the guest stars whose presence still produces the most cheer, from Bea Arthur to Art Carney to Harvey Korman, have died, though several of them have also done enough heartbreaking interviews over the years to be integrated.
The list of principals present for new interviews is always impressive, starting with replacement director Steven Binder and writers Leonard Ripps and Bruce Vilanch. There is a deep bench of people who are perfectly happy to laugh at the experience and, in some quite admirable cases, to talk about it without any shame. It’s hard to say how well Jefferson Starship’s Pete Sears actually remembers this experience, but he knows it’s a non-career defining footnote and therefore well worth acknowledging. Heck, fashion icon Bob Mackie seems proud that he was able to introduce new dimensions into the star wars the costume universe, as he sweetly puts it of the original film’s various blacks, whites, and beiges, “I guess in space they had no color.”
There are great stories about Lucas’ one-day work with the writers and the change in his original hopes or intentions for the special. There are fond memories of various goblets, stagehands and other participants below the line who are probably still giddy to have this on their resumes.
There’s even a delightfully candid Donny Osmond, remembering the Donny and Mary star wars tie-in episode which is, if such a thing is possible, an equally bizarre relic as the holiday special. Osmond is able to address the global phenomenon of ’70s single-variety specials; once you’ve seen snippets of Wayne Newton at SeaWorld Or The Paul Lynde Halloween Specialnothing in the holiday special seems This weird.
It’s not that the likes of Smith, Scheer, Taran Killam, “Weird Al” Yankovic and the late Gilbert Gottfried aren’t funny in their MST3K-disbelief style. But you don’t have to be a comedian, podcaster or pop culture geek to say sarcastic things about Bea Arthur singing a cantina torch song, Diahann Carroll providing VR porn for a wookiee or Harvey Korman as a four-armed alien dragging a cooking show. THE Star Wars Holiday Special has always been a collective fever dream shared by those who have lived through it, but we’ve all been making the same jokes for decades. It’s shooting Greedos in a barrel.
At least Green, in addition to his wisdom, worked alone with Lucas star wars-related specials and is able to offer hearsay stories by asking Lucas about this debacle. Additional information, some based on decades of speculation and scuttlebuts, comes from various talking heads tied to LucasFilm and then an assortment of long-established fan sites.
A disturbance in the Force is not a very refined documentary. Talking heads are blandly turned, interviews don’t always flow, and there’s almost no formal fantasy, despite a subject matter that could have opened an unimaginable number of doors. This lack of polish actually suits acceptably for a film in which nearly all of the footage is cobbled together from defaced video tapes and archival appearances. It makes the doc appear like a loving relic paying homage to a beloved relic.