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‘A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened’ (Blu-ray review)

Allied Vaughn

There should be a warning at the start of A Disturbance in the Force documentary: DO NOT WATCH the Star Wars Holiday Special. It’s that bad.

The documentary, however, was fascinating.

Trainwreck fascinating.

To the point where you might actually want to watch the Star Wars Holiday Special on your own volition, which you must not do. That’s this presentation’s biggest flaw.

Thus, the need for the warning.

I’ve seen the Holiday Special twice in my life.

The first time on November 17th, 1978, the first and only time it was broadcast.

The second, about 10 years ago when my late good friend Joe D’Angelo burned a copy for me on DVD.

I was irrevocably scarred on both occasions.

Through interviews with folks responsible for the making of the special and celebrities who were my age-ish when it aired, we get candid insight into how this anomaly came into being and needed validation that it’s as bad as we remember.

What’s mind-blowingly remarkable is that A Disturbance in the Force makes the Star Wars Holiday Special’s existence make complete sense.

It was the 70’s. A decade of cheesiness the likes of which I pray mankind will never see again. Variety shows were a thing, and everyone had one. Even legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell.

You couldn’t escape them. I know. I was there.

I had always assumed that Star Wars was so huge that it succeeded solely on its own momentum. And the toys. That, however, I learned was not entirely true.

Despite the phenomenal success of Star Wars, effort was still required to keep the film in the psyche of the audience until the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, could be made and released in 1980. That task fell to the unsung hero of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise; Charles Lippincott.

His contribution to Star Wars cannot be overstated and this documentary gives Lippincott his due. He can even be forgiven for the fact that he is a key player in rise of the Star Wars Holiday Special.p0

The documentary takes us on a thorough, complete and entertaining journey from May 1977, when Star Wars was released, though the airing of the Holiday Special. Pop culture historians and filmmakers who were involved with the production, and willing to talk, including legendary TV writer Bruce Vilanch, don’t hold back as they walk us through the misadventure. We’re even treated to archived interviews with the late Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman who were coaxed into appearing in the special. Korman as three different characters, no less.

To the filmmakers, the Holiday Special was just a job, they had no idea what Star Wars actually was yet.

No one did. Well, maybe George Lucas did. But, the franchise was still working itself out. That’s hard to imagine today, but when forced to confront these memories, they’re absolutely right. It was the wild west of the Star Wars universe as far as we were concerned.

For good or bad, watching this documentary, I found myself reliving memories of this time. A time when I was ravenous for anything Star Wars. My therapist on this drag down memory lane was Donnie Osmond of Donnie & Marie, one of many 70’s variety shows. Their show as one of the first, if not the first, to feature Star Wars characters as guests and Osmond’s recollections assured me that it wasn’t just me who thought these appearances were simply silly considering the phenomenal cinema that was Star Wars.

The fact that many Star Wars fans have invested in becoming self-trained historians of the Holiday Special is enlightening and horrifying. Specifically, Robot Chicken’s Seth Green. He knows every detail of lore and is proud of it. My kind of nerd.

The celebrity interviews with Weird Al, Bobcat Goldthwait, Kevin Smith, Patton Oswald and Gilbert Gottfried put into context the disaster that is the Holiday Special. They succinctly capture my feeling at the time of being so hopeful for another thrilling Star Wars adventure and being let down to the point where you feel embarrassed for everyone involved, especially Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill.

The amount of making-of material is satisfying surprise. I vaguely remember Ralph McQuarrie art of the Chewbacca family home on Kashyyyk existing and it was nice to see these art pieces unearthed along with a slew of behind the scenes photos and a few interviews. Notably, Mark Hamill’s post car accident facial reconstruction comments.

The inclusion of the drama behind the production of the special specifically helps put the quality of the Special into context. The key producer quit early on and in-fighting complicated the shaping of the story. George Lucas was mostly hands off. Budget over-runs and performer availability stunted production value. Can you image Raquel Welch instead of Diahann Carroll as the holographic muse? Or if Grace Slick wasn’t in rehab and performed with Jefferson Starship?

Not that either of these changes would have saved the production. Though they might have taken off a slice of cheese.

For as awkward and out of place the Star Wars Holiday Special, there are some redeeming qualities. A Disturbance in the Force reminds us that the Holiday Special resonates to this day and that its central theme of fighting for the ones we love lives on in Star Wars fandom. Its most important contribution being Life Day, the central conceit of the special that has ingrained itself in Star Wars culture.

It’s even mentioned in the pilot episode of The Mandalorian. And why not? Everyone needs a holiday.

Just the mention of the Star Wars Holiday Special might make us cringe, but it may well have helped the franchise survive just long enough to give us The Empire Strikes Back. I’m glad that A Disturbance in the Force brought this to my attention and it might, just might, help heal those scars inflicted upon a rabid Star Wars fan days prior to his eight birthday in 1978.

 

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