A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE is an Entertaining and Insightful Documentary about a STAR WARS TV Special That’s Neither

Out now on VOD: A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened

The infamously awful Star Wars Holiday Special has become a fairly well known phenomenon thanks to the internet age of fandom which has made it easily available for anyone curious enough to check it out, and has even become something of a rite of passage for fans of the franchise. But for years, it was the stuff of legend, like Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four movie: something you might find hope to find through tape-swapping circles or at a shady booth at a comic or sci-fi convention. Many fans who weren’t born at the time of its single airing in 1978 simply didn’t even know it existed.

Here at Cinapse we’re no strangers to this curio and we’ve reviewed it in the past. In 2015, Frank Calvillo asked the question, “Who’s Really to Blame for The Star Wars Holiday Special?”. A couple years later I made our team watch it for a Two Cents review roundup – and still hold out hope that one day they’ll forgive me.

For anyone unfamiliar, the Holiday Special is a 1978 variety special which featured many of the film’s key cast members including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, and Peter Mayhew, as well as guest stars like Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney. The variety format means there are a lot of different interludes, sketches, and musical numbers, but the main wraparound story centers on a “Life Day” celebration on the Wookiee home planet Kashyyyk, where the gang drops in on Chewbacca’s family – wife Malla, idiot son Lumpy, and insatiably horny granddad Itchy who enjoys donning a VR headset to (very vocally) watch softcore in the middle of the living room. Originally planned as an hourlong broadcast, it was stretched to two – and that’s no small part of why it’s so bad.

Frank isn’t the only person who has asked just how the Star Wars Holiday Special happened. That’s the driving question (and subtitle) behind the thoroughly enjoyable new documentary film A Disturbance in the Force.

This documentary isn’t a mere cash-in on the popularity of Star Wars, but a thoroughly researched and well-crafted treatment, with a lot of terrific new interviews in addition to archival materials. Many people involved in the special’s creation are tapped to talk about their experience. People like (among many others beyond my ability to recall or list) director Steve Binder, prolific writer Bruce Vilanch, Lucasfilm’s Craig Miller and Miki Herman, and even filmmaker Mick Garris, who I was surprised to learn was an early Star Wars Co. employee.

Modern filmmakers and comedians like Weird Al Yankovic, Kevin Smith, Bobcat Goldthwait, Patton Oswalt, and Paul Scheer offer up their memories and insights. In this respect I found Seth Green the most interesting – through his work on the Robot Chicken Star Wars parodies he had the opportunity to work with George Lucas and ask him frankly about his thoughts. The major Star Wars players aren’t on hand for new interviews, but the filmmakers have culled archives to pull clips and quotes from Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, George Lucas, and the Star Wars cast.

Also covered is the film’s pop culture imprint, highlighting clips and references from The Goldbergs, The Mandalorian, The Big Bang Theory, Conan O’Brien, and Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” music video.

The film also steps outside of the Holiday Special to highlight other weird and oft-forgotten Star Wars TV ephemera, including appearances on Donny and Marie and The Richard Pryor Show. A key point that’s identified it that the 70s were a wild time, and Star Wars wasn’t really Star Wars yet – The Empire Strikes Back was still to come, fans were hungry for any scraps they could get. These days we have a sense of the franchise’s identity, but in 1978 it was as yet just “a movie”, albeit one very much in the zeitgeist – and ripe for both promotion and parody. Donnie Osmond is a great interviewee, offering up a lot of memories on his Star Wars experience as well as insights about 70’s TV in general and the popularity of variety programming.

Suffice it to say, this is a tremendously entertaining AND enlightening documentary that’s unquestionably better than its subject.

—A/V Out

Buy or rent A Disturbance in the Force on Prime Video
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