$22.49 DVD, $24.95 BD-R;
Features Seth Green, Paul Scheer, Kevin Smith, Bruce Vilanch, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Donny Osmond, Mick Garris, Taran Killam, Gilbert Gottfried, Kyle Newman.
As Star Wars exploded into a cultural phenomenon in the summer of 1977, there was great anticipation for the burgeoning franchise the film would spawn. But how the story would continue was anybody’s guess.
While George Lucas had begun to work on the sequel that would become The Empire Strikes Back, it was still years away, and the Hollywood marketing machine wouldn’t be satiated without something to maintain audience interest until then.
Amid an uptick in merchandise, and toys on the horizon, Lucas agreed to allow CBS to make a holiday special to air in the fall of 1978. The result is one of the most infamous misfires in television history — a disastrous, cheap-looking “Star Wars”-themed variety show that would have been a forgotten footnote of the franchise were it not immortalized on bootleg video after its single airing.
A Disturbance in the Force is a great documentary that explores the making of and legacy of the Star Wars Holiday Special, which was embraced by fans as the campy but fun underbelly of the franchise at one point before prequels and other spinoffs diluted some of the property’s credibility.
Directed by Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, and produced by that duo alongside Fanboys director Kyle Newman, A Disturbance in the Force meticulously places the Star Wars Holiday Special in the context of its age through a fantastic selection of vintage clips. Television at the time was seen as disposable entertainment, dominated by variety shows that would maybe air once without much thought if they’d ever be seen again. The “Donny & Marie” show in September 1977 staged its own “Star Wars” episode that is now widely viewed as a notorious precursor to the Holiday Special, and is so wacky it has to be seen to be believed (it’s easy enough to track down on YouTube).
The Star Wars Holiday Special was originally intended as a one-hour one-off about Chewbacca’s family celebrating “Life Day,” an important event in the “Star Wars” galaxy. Lucas himself even wrote a treatment for the story, which he handed off to the production team before setting his sights on Empire.
Meanwhile, not wanting to let the popularity of “Star Wars” go to waste, CBS expanded the special to two hours, and applied a variety show format to round out the time, seemingly with Lucas’ blessing. The core “Star Wars” cast even signed up to appear (though Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill later lamenting their appearances is one of the highlights of the documentary).
But in an age where the gap between television and film was much greater than it is now, producing “Star Wars” on a TV budget proved to be a difficult proposition. The special’s original director quit, and the new director, a veteran of TV production, admits he never met Lucas while making the show. The guest cast, consisting primarily of Art Carney, Harvey Korman and Bea Arthur, while appealing to the older CBS audience, were a strange fit for the younger and hipper “Star Wars” crowd (all of Carney’s scenes reportedly had to be filmed in the morning, as he had a penchant for cocktails at lunch). And post-production was left up to a pair of variety show producers who had no experience in editing. The result is a textbook lesson in the importance of maintaining creative control of an IP.
The documentary employs a series of talking heads to discuss the special. A number of them worked on it and provide valuable insights into how the show went off the rails. Others are celebrities and “Star Wars” fans such as Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Paul Scheer and Patton Oswalt who reflect on the bizarreness of the segments, which ranged from 10 minutes of Wookiees going about their day without any dialogue, to Bea Arthur singing to the patrons of the cantina.
The special’s most outrageous bit is probably Chewbacca’s father watching what amounts to space porn in the family living room — in the form of a virtual reality chanteuse designed to stimulate his pleasure centers with a song and some proto-ASMR. The part of Grandpa’s lust object was intended to be played by Cher, but when she dropped out the production settled for Diahann Carroll instead.
For his part, Lucas reportedly once claimed to want to destroy all copies of the Holiday Special (which now also is readily available on YouTube), which is why it has never made its way to an official home video release.
Any bits of praise for the special are reserved for an animated segment that was commissioned by Lucas to introduce the character of Boba Fett. Called “The Story of the Faithful Wookiee,” this cartoon is the only part of the special to receive an official Lucasfilm release, appearing as an extra on some Blu-ray boxed sets of the films, and available on Disney+.
There’s also some discussions about how other aspects of the special eventually made their way into “Star Wars” canon, and how fans now celebrate Nov. 17, the day of the special’s airing, as “Life Day,” an unofficial holiday with elaborate ceremonies at the “Star Wars” lands at Disney theme parks.
With most of the attention focused on the making of and legacy of the special, the documentary glosses over the particulars of how it ended up being disseminated on bootleg video. Kevin Smith notes this was the era before widespread adoption of VCRs, but they did exist. The VHS and DVD copies that eventually found their way to fans through conventions, mail order, online and other underground means seem to be sourced from a number of different copies, and it would have been interesting to delve into where those came from. Some are edited, while others have all the original commercials, and the quality is usually degraded from being copied multiple times. The documentary only briefly touches on this aspect of the Holiday Special phenomenon in a segment that plays during the closing credits. Perhaps there was more to this that was cut from the documentary, but if there was the DVD and manufactured-on-demand Blu-ray don’t provide any answers as they don’t include any bonus materials.
All in all, the documentary is a must-see for “Star Wars” fans, and a fun look back at the early years of the franchise.