In a time when so many big-budget blockbuster hopefuls are prepackaged as the start of an entire universe of films before they arrive in theaters, it’s nearly impossible for someone like yours truly to imagine a time when the exact opposite was true. But for the original Star Wars, that’s precisely what happened. No plans in place for an expanded universe. Not even a toy line ready to put on the shelves for the holidays. But the newly created fanbase was desperate for more, and Empire wouldn’t come out for a few more years. That left George Lucas with one option to keep Star Wars in the zeitgeist: variety television. Out of that came… The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s new doc A Disturbance in the Force explores this odd, odd curio of fan culture, covering the media climate in which it was created and how on Earth the final product turned out like, well… that.
Although Holiday Special additions like Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Jefferson Starship, and even Lumpy seem patently absurd, Coon, Kozak, and a cast of talking heads (such as Donny Osmond, Bruce Vilanch, Seth Green, Weird Al, Paul Scheer, and many more) break down how this was actually par for the course in the television landscape of the time. People like Donny and Marie Osmond, Bob Hope, and even the cast of The Brady Bunch ruled the airwaves with their variety shows. And when they were bad, they were really bad. One clip humorously shows Donny, Marie, and Kris Kristofferson as Luke, Leia, and Han performing a song-and-dance number that can only be described as cringe. Even Donny agrees in his interview.
As the doc astutely notes, art and its iconography without context just looks weird; although Star Wars took inspiration from many stories that came before it, it felt brand new at the time. Frankly, television of the time didn’t have the infrastructure to handle something like Star Wars. Bringing in stormtroopers and Wookies into these variety show setups just made them look bizarre. A Disturbance in the Force is at its best when focusing on the collision of classic vaudevillian entertainment clashing head-on with the burgeoning New Hollywood. 1978 was probably the only time something like the Holiday Special could come out, with each generation having enough sway to put their stamp on it.
A Disturbance in the Force is neither revolutionary in its form nor very polished, but it functions well as an oral history. It describes the litany of Holiday Special development issues, like George Lucas leaving very early on for Empire, the production immediately going way over budget and causing a change in director, and an overmatched group of variety show writers left with near-total creative control. Hilariously, it shows how Holiday Special guest performers like Bea Arthur were really confused by Star Wars. Of course, the final product was going to go off the rails; they just didn’t get it!
There are plenty of jokes at the Holiday Special‘s expense, but the doc is also a sweet celebration of how it has endured, no matter how hard George Lucas has tried to eradicate all traces of it. It was destiny that something so strange would stick around.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on A Disturbance in the Force? Comment down below!
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