You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies, and you don’t become a global phenomenon like Star Wars without collecting a few skeletons to stash away. But the story behind the documentary A Disturbance in the Force is more harmless than your typical company backstory.
Corporate mergers and the havoc they wreak abound both on and off all manner of screens, so it’s almost a relief that the dark secret under discussion is the 1978 TV movie The Star Wars Holiday Special, a television event so terrible that it only aired once, with George Lucas spending much of his subsequent life trying to bury it.
It seems like an almost impossible task to explain how a made-for-TV film which included Bea Arthur singing to a giant rat, a Wookie named Itchy enjoying a VR porn experience with Diahann Carroll, Harvey Korman in drag as a four-armed alien cook and a more humanoid one who drinks through a hole atop his head came into being, but A Disturbance in the Force attempts to do just that. How did a TV movie that was all about attempting to get Chewbacca home to his family to celebrate the fictional holiday of Life Day come to this?
Setting the Cultural Stage
The documentary starts by attempting to explain the baffling environment that was the cultural landscape of the time, which featured elements so bizarre that it made the special under discussion look like Citizen Kane, as one talking head puts it. You’d have to see the commercial for a game geared towards children based around the Al Pacino-starring Cruising to believe it, but it apparently existed without any attempt at hiding what they were literally playing at, with a baffled father watching what kids today were up to standing in for us all.
In short, what transpired that holiday season could’ve never happened a few years later, which saw the arrival of the frontrunner for greatest sequel of all time. To go on this quasi-guided tour of the late 70s and the typical marketing methods when the variety show was king, stuffed full of clips, including a Donny & Marie skit with Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo, is to fully appreciate the claim that the special under discussion became memorable merely because it had the Star Wars label attached.
There’s no reason to fear that more recognizable eras lack attention, since more recent interviews on late night formats, one of the most memorable being Harrison Ford tensing up like a deer in space headlights when someone brings up the bomb he and his co-stars were contractually roped into, are also given their due.
Less famous faces also have their say, with tapes standing in for interviews sans any visuals, as those behind the scenes struggle to articulate just what happened, with various nerd culture icons like Kevin Smith, Weird Al, and Seth Green rounding out the picture from a fan perspective. It’s so much fun you hardly notice when it drags a bit, or that it could use more of a reminder that women comprise a fair portion of the fandom as well.
Co-directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak are clearly making good use of their long history behind the scenes to give those outside of the industry a sense of how those who gave a project life in the first place can slowly lose their grip on it. Throw in some nightmarish stories of what it was like for the talent to actually work on the set, and it’s hard to escape a sense that it’s Coon who’s experiencing the ultimate nerdgasm after producing Napoleon Dynamite and Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, another documentary about loving fan service to Lucas.
Regardless, he and Kozak make it easy to curate what is in a sense a gleeful fanboy tribute to the kind of chaotic franchise entry that is now fully in the grip of an ever-vigilant corporate entity. The mood is more affectionate than disdainful, with no one pretending the product under discussion is high art, even though it featured the debut of Boba Fett in the highly praised animated segment.
That all of this is far more known is of course thanks to the Internet, which brought the special to audiences hungry for a time when A New Hope was the only Star Wars content that existed, and even the most diehard fans may learn something new. If nothing else, it’s a rare gem that sincerely believes there’s something to be mined from failure, including joy.
Rating: 9/10 SPECS
A Disturbance in the Force does not have an official release date. You can find more information here.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.