The phrase “good movie” and “Star Wars Holiday Special” are not regularly in the same sentence, but there’s a first time for everything. Here goes: A Disturbance in the Force, a new documentary about The Star Wars Holiday Special, is in fact a good movie.
Directed by Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, the documentary uses new interviews, jaw-dropping archival footage, and, yes, the Holiday Special itself, to not just explain how and why the special happened, but how and why it’s so weird, the reputation it got, its eventual cultural resurgence, and even its unique, important place in Star Wars history. All of this unfolds in a mostly formal but very enjoyable film that’s sure to delight and inform all manner of Star Wars fans.
For anyone who may not know what we’re talking about here, The Star Wars Holiday Special aired on November 17, 1978. It was a two-hour variety show featuring not just the actual cast of Star Wars (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, etc.) but a full storyline about Chewbacca’s family celebrating a Star Wars holiday called Life Day. There are songs sung by Bea Arthur, Jefferson Starship, and weird appearances by stars such as Art Carney and Diahann Carroll. It’s a trip. Before it aired, Star Wars creator George Lucas tried to have it buried so it only aired one time and basically went missing for 20 years, only to have an almost mythological resurgence due to the internet.
A Disturbance in the Force not only documents all of that, it contextualizes each and every piece. Star Wars super fans like Kevin Smith, Seth Green, and Taren Killam are joined by Lucasfilm employees as well as tons of people who worked on the special, from its director Steve Binger to its writers such as Bruce Vilanch and Rod Warren. Each provides their own fascinating insights into the show’s creation and execution while putting into question the special’s legacy as a black mark on the franchise.
That’s because the documentary makes a very compelling case that the special is not merely a borderline embarrassing piece of content, it’s an example of a radically different time in the history of Star Wars. It’s proof that the powers that be didn’t know just how big it would become. We all know the stories of how Star Wars came from nowhere to be a huge hit, but A Disturbance in the Force takes that a step further to explain how the franchise was challenged by that success. That this tiny company, Lucasfilm, hadn’t established itself yet and fought tooth and nail to keep the film relevant by any means necessary, even if certain publicity tactics didn’t mesh with its themes. To illustrate, Coon and Kozak show us all kinds of incredible footage of the era, such as “Darth Vader vs. the Wolfman” or Star Wars segments on the Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, and Donny and Marie Osmond shows — clips some Star Wars fans have surely seen, but many (and I’m speaking from experience here) probably have not.
As a result, the film not only becomes a document of the Holiday Special itself but a snapshot of a Wild West era in Star Wars history where anything was possible. A completely different, comical, irreverent approach to a franchise that soon after, and to this day, has become a much more carefully guarded thing — which, of course, is exactly what the special wasn’t. And, even if the documentary was just that, it would be worth a watch. But it’s more than that.
The historical context then rolls into a near scene-by-scene dissection of the special, complete with its actors, costume designers, dancers, singers, you name it, all weighing in. Some of the interviews — such as ones with the stars like Hamill, Ford, and Fisher — are archival, but others are brand new for the documentary, and provide excellent insight into all aspects of production and release. For example, did you know the special’s director wasn’t its first director, and production ran so behind and so over budget that he had to leave the project the instant the shoot was over, leaving the editing to his colleagues who had never edited anything before? And that he regrets it to this day?
Tidbits like that, along with modern fans recontextualizing the special alongside events in Disney Parks and homages on everything from The Mandalorian to South Park, let the viewer decide for themselves exactly what place in history The Star Wars Holiday Special deserves to have. And whichever way you come down, you’re sure to enjoy seeing the documentary’s various segments and will end up learning a thing or two along the way.
A Disturbance in the Force premiered at South by Southwest earlier this month and is currently seeking distribution. Visit this link for more info.
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