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A Disturbance in the Force: The Star Wars Holiday Special Gets Feature Documentary

Cinema | November 19th, 2023

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

Aired just one time on CBS the evening of November 17, 1978, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” was the first sanctioned, long-form Luscasfilm media extending the cultural phenomenon of the blockbuster movie directed by George Lucas.

Over the years, the show’s reputation spread through word of mouth and bootleg VHS dubs sold at sci-fi conventions until the internet made access easier.

Filmmakers Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak celebrate the 45th anniversary of Life Day with “A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened,” a feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary dive into the factors that would shape the mythology and fuel the infamy of one of the most ill-conceived variety productions in the era of “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” and “The Archie Situation Comedy Musical Variety Show.”

While it can charitably be said that “Disturbance” is mostly for fans of “Star Wars” and/or movie and television history, the subtitle of the doc represents real truth in advertising. The account of the origins, execution, and reception of “The Star Wars Holiday Special” is so painstakingly communicated, the viewing experience never approaches the giddy head-trip or eye candy of Cinefamily’s “Star Wars Nothing But Star Wars,” a far more satisfying assemblage of scraps and spare parts salvaged from the bowels of the period’s seemingly endless supply of embarrassing cross-promotions and tie-ins.

The movie’s greatest deficit, however, is the altogether obvious and narrow panel of talking heads clamoring to uncork comic quips and zingers between the historical recollections of the survivors who actually worked on the show.

While not likely a deliberate sin of omission, Coon and Kozak ignore the diversity of the global fanbase; women and people of color are as scarce here as they were in the original film. Celebrity guests include Kevin Smith, Patton Oswalt, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Seth Green, Gilbert Gottfried, Taran Killam, and others. The collective impact of their sizable screen time nudges the package in the direction of something like VH1’s “I Love the ‘80s.”

Far more valuable and less annoying is the participation of various team members who contributed – directly or indirectly – to the special’s creation. Folks like Steve Binder, Miki Herman, Leonard Ripps, Bruce Vilanch, and Bob Mackie end up softening some of the expected and longstanding ridicule aimed at the special.

It is within this framework that “Disturbance” finds some success. Coon and Kozak skillfully arrange these anecdotes to contextualize the big picture question “How Did This Get Made?” via a savvy understanding of Lucasfilm Vice President of Advertising, Publicity, Promotion and Merchandising Charley Lippincott’s gift for concocting ways to keep the “Star Wars” machine chugging along.

As a result of the anything-goes mentality of the moment (we are smartly reminded how difficult it can be to even recall the Star Wars universe when it was brand new) and the lack of any direct, creative involvement by Lucas, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” turned out to be the gift that has kept on giving.

Bea Arthur’s cantina tribute to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Diahann Carroll’s porny proto-VR fantasy. The untranslated Shyriiwook spoken by Chewbacca’s family for what feels like forever (I’m still worried that Lumpy will fall off that railing). Jefferson Starship’s “Light the Sky on Fire.” Harvey Korman, happily attired in cosmic Julia Child drag, preparing Bantha Surprise. Hamill, Fisher, and Ford. The inaugural mass media appearance of Boba Fett in Nelvana’s Moebius-influenced cartoon. 

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