The Spool / Festivals
SXSW: A Disturbance in the Force documents a pop culture disaster
Jeremy Coon & Steve Kozak direct an affectionate look at the legendarily cringe-worthy Star Wars Holiday Special.
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Jeremy Coon & Steve Kozak direct an affectionate look at the legendarily cringe-worthy Star Wars Holiday Special.

I remember parking my 7-year-old hinder in front of the television set on the evening of Nov 17, 1978 to bear witness to something that would presumably be unforgettable—a two-hour holiday special that set in the world of Star Wars, then pretty much the hottest thing in the universe. Like so many other people at the time, when it was all over, I was baffled by what I had just witnessed.

Even at that age, I knew enough about the difference between film and television to realize that I probably wasn’t going to see anything as elaborate as what I had already glimpsed several times in the theater. That said, I never would have predicted that I would be watching the woman from Maude singing in the cantina or a sequence involving a Wookiee watching something decidedly naughty on some bizarre pre-VR technology. For years, I thought I had somehow hallucinated all of this (a notion bolstered by the fact that the show was never shown anywhere following that single broadcast), but when I got a look at a bootleg VHS tape about 20 years later, memories of those moments and so many more came flooding back in a bizarre rush.

Thanks to the proliferation of bootleg DVDs and sub rosa YouTube links (not to mention George Lucas’s often-quoted wish that he could find and destroy every remaining copy), numerous pop culture scholars were inspired to explore the show to understand how something so beloved could inspire something so bizarre and reviled in the first place. The most elaborate bit of scholarship in that area is A Disturbance in the Force, a documentary from co-directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak that examines the entire project from its vaguely noble beginnings to the bewildering twists that it took on the way to its infamous premiere. Additionally, it posits that some viewers, many of whom weren’t even alive during that single airing, are willing to now suggest that the show, for all of its obvious freakishness, is perhaps not that bad after all.

Unlike virtually any other point in the history of the Star Wars universe, the period following its smash debut was an uncharted one for Lucas and his super-valuable property, in which the various creative and commercial moves that he would make had not yet been set into stone yet. Although he was already planning The Empire Strikes Back at the time, it would still be a few years until it arrived in theaters and there was worry that audience interest might taper off before then. To fill in that gap, the idea of doing a holiday television special came up that would involve many of the film’s original participants (perhaps not exactly willingly), and not only be a ratings bonanza, but serve as both an extended commercial for the franchise’s toy line, and an introduction to a new character, a mysterious bounty hunter by the name of Boba Fett.

A Disturbance in the Force
A Disturbance in the Force (SXSW)

Although Lucas left the production early on in order to work on Empire, he evidently approved the controversial decision to do the whole thing as a variety show with comedic bits, musical numbers and guest stars, as well as a trip to Chewbacca’s home planet and a look at his family. As some of the behind-the-scenes participants suggest, this approach may have been inspired by a loopy Star Wars-themed bit on the old Donny & Marie show. Alas, while the shotgun marriage of the Star Wars universe and the tenets of the then-dying variety show format might barely hold up for the length of an extended skit, asking it to support a two-hour special was, to put it politely, madness.

All of this is recounted in the film in a breezily entertaining style, but there is one obstacle that it can’t avoid: the inability of the filmmakers to get Lucas or the remaining cast members to discuss their experiences and feelings regarding the show. It tries to make up for this by including plenty of archival footage that finds the stars talking about it during convention Q&As, or talk show appearances (including comments from Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman, who essayed three (3) roles in the show without garnering one (1) genuine laugh), as well as commentary from such celebs as Weird Al Yankovic, Taran Killam and, perhaps inevitably, Kevin Smith.

More interesting are the interviews with those who worked on it behind the scenes, such as co-writer Bruce Vilanch and director Steve Binder, the variety show vet (who did the famed Elvis comeback special, among other things) who took over the project when the original director was canned after a few days. They end up supplying plenty of intriguing details of how it all went sideways and present interesting bits of trivia (such as the revelation that the giant rat that Arthur sings to at one especially strange moment was one created by Rick Baker for the schlock favorite Food of the Gods).

A Disturbance in the Force is not a particularly penetrating example of cinematic archaeology (the views we get of some of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept drawing make you long for more actual behind-the-scenes material) and much of the target audience for the film will probably already know most of the details that it reveals. Still, it does a decent job of dissecting a show that never should have logically existed, exploring the circumstances that allowed it to exist and reminding us that the Boba Fett cartoon contained therein was genuinely cool. If nothing else, it reminded me once again that to this day, I vastly prefer the sight of Bea Arthur crooning a saloon song with the cantina band to those goddamned Ewoks any day of the week, Life Day or otherwise.

A Disturbance in the Force Trailer: