The question asked back in the ’80s and ’90s was never, “Have you seen The Star Wars Holiday Special?” It was always, “Have you heard of The Star Wars Holiday Special?”
We’re talking about a 1978 air date, after all. Someone must have owned a VCR, since bootleg copies of the maligned variety show do exist on the Internet (George Lucas has vehemently denounced the project and even Disney has refused to release a “clean” copy beyond putting the animated segment “The Story of the Faithful Wookiee” on Disney+.) But its existence was akin to legend back then. Just knowing was enough to be cool with details being learned rather than experienced.
So it’s shocking that it’s taken until 2023 to finally receive a “definitive” look at its creation and eventual lambasting. Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s A Disturbance in the Force thus seems almost like a miracle––as if Lucas fashioned an NDA that expired to finally grant the people involved permission to put their memories on the record. Because those people are the ones who should speak on it. Letting Kevin Smith, Weird Al, and Gilbert Gottfried reminisce is fun, but their accounts are circumstantial and clouded by pop-culture zeitgeist hindsight. What do those who put their sweat into the production have to say?
Short answer: nothing good. Long answer: nothing good with the addition of necessary and invaluable context. That’s the captivating part of stories like this. Give us an idea of the era. Of the never-before-seen success Star Wars: A New Hope delivered. Of the half-baked idea to stay in the public consciousness by any means possible (despite leaving it not really being a threat). No one had marketed a film like Charles Lippincott did Lucas’ space opera. No one could begin to guess just how embedded into the fabric of society they already were.
You can’t therefore blame the powers that be for doing what they did know. Saturate the market. Make sure Star Wars was booked on every talk show and family-focused program on air. And, of course, provide new content on the cheap. All with the approval of Lucas, mind you. The treatment for the special focusing on Chewbacca’s family waiting for his arrival to celebrate Life Day was apparently––subjects in the film don’t go so far as to officially confirm it––written by him. Lenny Ripps isn’t wrong to admit that if there’s blame to throw around, it needs to land on Lucas. He was the only person who might have wrangled the chaos.
The script instead went to Ripps and Bruce Vilanch, amongst others (they are the only two involved in the documentary), with Ken and Mitzie Welch taking the reins over once original director David Acomba left and replacement director Steve Binder (also interviewed) stated he couldn’t be involved in post-production. Top-tier talent dropped out and / or was refused by CBS executives who wanted aging stalwarts Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman instead. The budget ballooned. The money disappeared. And the message (equality amongst races) was drowned out by the sheer lunacy of everything else.
It’s great to hear, though, that those interviewed have the same gripes with the finished product as we do. How do you let the first nine minutes after the credits go on without any discernible dialogue? Why is Chewbacca’s elderly father watching a thinly veiled metaphor for VR porn courtesy of a Diahann Carroll cameo in the middle of the living room? What’s the point of forcing Empire soldiers to watch Arthur serenade what we thought was the roughest bar in the galaxy on Chewbacca’s TV in the midst of conducting a raid of his house? Absolutely bizarre.
And yet there remains a charm to it all when it feels forbidden. I would have liked Coon and Kozak to delve deeper into this phenomenon, but it’s somewhat self-explanatory and woven into the very need for their documentary to have been made in the first. This endeavor is more of an “oral history,” anyway, with clips of other variety shows to prove this one wasn’t an outlier, and enough scenes from the special itself to render having to sit through its slog of a 97-minute runtime unnecessary. Watching Korman dressed like an intergalactic Julia Child for ten seconds is much more palatable than the full five-minute sequence of him simply putting ingredients in a pot.
Don’t expect any real culture commentary, though. Boba Fett’s animal abuse and Mark Hammill telling Chewbacca’s wife Mala to smile aren’t referenced at all. This film is about the special’s place in Hollywood and Star Wars history more than its social or political worth. It’s about the differences between television and cinema––a stark contrast to today, as Disney floods their streaming site with episodic sequels to all their theatrical blockbusters––and the unavoidable creation of a disaster when too many cooks from too many disciplines are in the kitchen of a chef who decided to vacate the premises instead of leading the charge.
It’s also a love letter to a time when such a monumental failure was allowed to fail. No IP steward worth their salt would ever let their characters and worlds be molded by someone who wasn’t intimately aware of the branded mythos and aesthetic. Heck, even some projects that are attuned to the style and tone of the franchise aren’t allowed to see the light of day anymore. Coon and Kozak show that The Star Wars Holiday Special truly exists on an island alone as an unwitting cautionary tale never to be repeated again.
A Disturbance in the Force screened as part of The Fantasia International Film Festival.