If you’re a Gen X or “geriatric” millennial Star Wars fanatic, you probably have a story related to the contortions you had to go through to get your hands on the notorious only-aired-once 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special.
Freshman year. My college roommate Andrew brought back a bootleg tape — there has never been a legitimate release — given to him by a guy who knew a guy at his regular comic shop. We watched with breathless anticipation that turned to quizzical horror — a generational rite of passage.
A Disturbance in the Force
The Bottom Line
A mix of too-easy jokes and interesting insights.
Today, you can go to YouTube and take your pick from among several Star Wars Holiday Special uploads, at least one of which has remained up for seven years and has 3.6 million views. So much for 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 head-scratching about the special. Some of its mockery and many of its nerd-friendly celebrity talking heads — Seth Green! Kevin Smith! Paul Scheer! — are predictable, but when it isn’t poking fun at moments of iconic trash, it offers an insightful exploration of the production and context of the special.
Anybody who has seen it can and will tell you why The Star Wars Holiday Special is campy or silly. But in the hows and whys of that silliness and campiness, there are very interesting details relating to the state of television in the 1970s, the way Star Wars and its ancillary offshoots changed Hollywood, and 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 rubbernecking.
Going into A Disturbance in the Force, you can already guess many of the key players who won’t be participating. George Lucas has condemned the special and generally refused to talk about it. All of the core Star Wars actors, roped into the special during the brief window they didn’t have the power to resist, have cringed through their recollections in talk show and convention appearances over the years; they’re present in that archival footage, but nothing new. Most of the guest stars whose presence still produces the most mirth, from Bea Arthur to Art Carney to Harvey Korman, have passed on, though several of them also did enough chagrined interviews over the years to be woven in.
The list of principals present for new interviews is still impressive, starting with replacement director Steven Binder and writers Leonard Ripps and Bruce Vilanch. There’s a deep bench of people who are perfectly happy to laugh about the experience and, in some thoroughly admirable cases, to address it without any shame at all. It’s hard to tell how vividly Pete Sears of Jefferson Starship actually remembers this experience, but he knows it’s a footnote that doesn’t define his career and therefore is perfectly fine to acknowledge. Heck, fashion icon Bob Mackie seems proud about getting to introduce new dimensions to the Star Wars costume universe, as he cattily says of the various blacks, whites and beiges of the original movie, “I guess in space they didn’t have color.”
There are great stories about Lucas’ one day working with the writers and the shift from his original hopes or intentions for the special. There are good recollections from various tumblers, stage hands and other below-the-line participants who are actually probably still giddy to have this on their resumés.
There’s even a delightfully candid Donny Osmond, remembering the Donny & Marie Star Wars tie-in episode that is, if such a thing is possible, every bit as bizarre a relic as the holiday special. Osmond is able to touch on the overall phenomenon of one-off ’70s variety specials; once you’ve seen clips from Wayne Newton at Sea World or The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, nothing in the holiday special seems that weird.
It isn’t that people like Smith, Scheer, Taran Killam, “Weird Al” Yankovic and the late Gilbert Gottfried aren’t funny in their MST3K-style incredulity. But you don’t need to be a comedian, podcaster or pop culture savant to say snarky things about Bea Arthur singing a cantina torch song, Diahann Carroll providing virtual reality porn for a wookiee or Harvey Korman as a four-armed alien in drag doing a cooking show. The Star Wars Holiday Special has always been a collective fever dream shared by those who experienced 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 cracking wise, has worked with Lucas on his own Star Wars-related specials and is able to offer hearsay stories from asking Lucas about this debacle. Additional insights, some based on decades of speculation and scuttlebutt, come from various talking heads tied to LucasFilm and then to an assortment of long-established fan sites.
A Disturbance in the Force isn’t a very polished documentary. The talking heads are blandly shot, the interviews don’t always flow and there’s almost no formal whimsy at all, despite subject matter that could have opened an unimaginable number of doors. That lack of polish actually fits acceptably for a film in which almost all the footage is cobbled from degraded video cassettes and archival appearances. It makes the doc come across as a loving relic paying tribute to a beloved relic.