A Disturbance In The Force


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Disturbance In The Force
"The special itself may exert a certain fascination but this documentary reveals that there was much more going on behind the scenes." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Long, long ago, in a studio far, far away, a group of people whose precise identity remains disputed came up with an idea so devastatingly awful, so manifestly disappointing and overflowing with cringe that it made the destruction of Alderan by the Death Star pale in comparison. This was the Star Wars Holiday Special, broadcast only once, and it would become the stuff of legend. Around 13 million people saw it on that fateful day in November 1978; reportedly, few of them made it to the end. It has since become one of the all time most sought-after bootlegged and pirated productions as fans have become desperate to experience the horror for themselves.

Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s documentary, which screened at South by Southwest and Fantasia 2023, digs into this subject with gusto, looking at the stories behind the special, its unforgettable moments, and the lure of the forbidden. If you haven't seen the production itself, it will fill you with curiosity. If you have, you might consider it therapeutic, or respect the opportunity it provides for key figures to absolve themselves. Harrison Ford, in an excerpt from a chat show, explains that it was in his contract and he simply had no way out.

The filmmakers have no access to the really big names but archive material like this ensures that their voices are still heard. They were not, of course, big named prior to Star Wars, and that was part of the problem. Although George Lucas was hard at work on The Empire Strikes Back in late 1978, the studios were worried that audience interest would flag, that some new fad would come along and nobody would care about Star Wars anymore. Their big idea was that a holiday special would keep interest alive. Lucas, true to form, knew exactly what his characters were doing between films and told them that Han Solo would be visiting the Wookie homeworld to spend time with Chewbacca’s family during their celebration of Life Day (a fictional event which has now become a real one in some fan communities). The special was to be based around that. Towards the end of this film, one of its creators actually blames him for not being there to supervise more of what followed, as if he had a duty to anticipate how wildly off base it would go.

They didn’t use all of his ideas. This film contains a revelation about Han Solo’s personal life which was too much even for the special. The rest of the problems, Coon and Kozak suggest, essentially stem from the difference between the film and variety show worlds, and the fact that the inhabitants of each knew very, very little about the other.

Star Wars had featured in variety before, with a skit on the Donny And Marie Osmond Show in which Kris Kristofferson played Han Solo and storm troopers danced in unison. Donny Osmond contributes here, astonishingly cool and well adjusted, noting that it was what was fashionable at the time and he’s happy to have made a good living at it. This didn’t really mess with the characters, however. The narrative elements in the special required it to do something else, and nobody was quite sure how. By and large, US variety show viewers don’t tolerate subtitles. Wookies don’t speak English. Cue a good 15 minutes of broadcast conversation which nobody could understand. And that was just the start of it.

The special itself may exert a certain fascination but this documentary reveals that there was much more going on behind the scenes. Why was Golden Girl Bea Arthur suddenly running the Mos Eisley Cantina and carrying on a romance in strangely friendly hive of scum and villainy? Why were Jefferson Starship hanging out with Darth Vader as if they were old pals? Why did Mark Hamill look like a clown, and who imagined that on any planet it would be considered appropriate for Chewy’s grandfather to do what he was doing with that VR headset in the middle of the family living room? Then there were the shooting delays caused by fainting aliens, temperamental variety stars and film stars who didn’t have a clue what was happening to them. That’s before we get to the disturbing business of Life Day itself which, as one contributor suggests, resembled nothing so much as a ritualised cult suicide committed in the hope of ascension.

It wasn’t all bad. The Boba Fett cartoon buried in the middle of it was really what launched the iconic bounty hunter’s career, giving him a backstory and a more complex personality which made him a fan favourite. Without it, it’s unlikely that The Mandalorian would exist, and in acknowledgement of this you can see references in that series to the cartoon. The latter part of this film highlights other instances in which the holiday special – which Lucas maintains is canon – has influenced later Star Wars productions. It is at its most incisive when exploring aspects of the marketing campaign which made the saga a success in the first place, identifying that as the real site of innovation.

It would have been good to see more analysis like this in the documentary. For the most part, it focuses more on sensation and emotional reactions, which doesn’t really contribute all that much that’s new, though it is often entertaining. As such, it’s likely to be of little more than passing interest for the average filmgoer. For serious Star Wars fans, however, it is a must see. Participants like Kevin Smith and Weird Al Yankovic add to its appeal and certainly know their stuff. One just wishes that this kind of understanding had been available to the special’s creators before broadcast.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2023
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The story behind the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, which was watched by 13 million people but never re-aired and is considered one of the worst shows to ever air on TV.

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