Remembering the Day ‘Star Wars’ Nearly Died
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was Star Wars… and only Star Wars. Oh, you could buy a novelization of George Lucas’ cosmic saga of good and evil, as well as a Marvel Comics’ adaptation of the film that kept the post-Death Star story going in… some very singular ways. (Pour one out for the giant green space-rabbit Jaxxon T. Tumperakki.) Eventually, there were toys — so, so many toys — as well as soundtrack albums, coffee-table books of concept art, and loads of other merchandise. But in terms of seeing Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and everybody else from the universe that the 33-year-old filmmaker had created, there was only the one movie. That was it.
A Disturbance in the Force, the Star Wars documentary premiering at this year’s SXSW, goes to great pains to remind us of the moment right after what’s now referred to as A New Hope first dropped. Out of nowhere, Lucas had given the world this intricate mythology that begged, borrowed and stole from a host of different sources, and somehow tapped into the collective mindhive’s need for a ripping space yarn at exactly the right time. Full disclosure: I was six years old when the movie came out, and I can attest that everyone in 1977 went apeshit for anything even remotely Star Wars-adjacent. The Empire Strikes Back was still three years away. The whole notion of different trilogies, prequels, origin stories, video games, animated series, and TV shows wouldn’t become a reality for decades. There was no supply to meet a very, very rabid demand.
Which is how Lucas unwittingly found himself stepping over to the dark side. He was about to make an ill-advised deal with the Empire. Or, as we called it back then, CBS.
The result, as Disturbance chronicles in great detail, would interrupt the Tiffany Network’s regularly scheduled programming on the Friday evening of November 17, 1978. The Star Wars Holiday Special would return us to the world of droids and Wookiees and stormtroopers and Sith Lords that we so desperately craved, and then reminded us that we must always be careful what we wish for. Once again, we got to hang out with Luke and Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO. We also got to meet Chewbacca’s family, who spoke nothing but untranslated grunts and roars for over nine minutes of screen time.
And then there was Art Carney, doing a vaudeville-era slapstick routine for some Empire toadies. And Bea Arthur is tending bar at the Mos Eisley cantina, singing and dancing with all that scum and villainy. Wait, is that Harvey Korman as a Julia Child-like droid with four arms, giving a cooking lesson? What is Jefferson Starship doing here, playing “Light the Sky on Fire?” And why is Diahann Carroll dancing in some sort of Wookiee VR porn that Chewie’s father, Itchy, is watching in the living room? These weren’t even close to the droids we were looking for.
Directed by Jeremy Coon (Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made) and Steve Kozak, A Disturbance in the Force gives us both the context, the origin story, and the fallout of a Star Wars footnote so embarrassing that for years, George Lucas tried to Jedi-mind-trick out of existence. CBS had approached the filmmaker about wanting to do something with the brand. Driven by the need to fill the gap between his unexpected hit and a sequel he was still figuring out, Lucas fleshed out an idea for a story that would take place on Chewbacca’s home planet and involve a holiday called Life Day, described in the doc as a sort of “Wookiee Rosh Hashanah.”
Lucas would be involved, at least at first; he’d asked his old USC classmate, a music documentarian named David Acomba, to direct it. The entire cast would be on board as well. But the network had pictured something like a variety show involving the Star Wars characters, and they began to bring on folks like longtime Carol Burnett Show writers Ken and Mitze Welch, and Oscar-banter punch-up legend Bruce Vilanch, to work on the script as well. From the very beginning, there seemed to be two opposing camps: the Lucasfilm-affiliated folks and the variety-show veterans.
Eventually, Lucas would turn his attention to Empire. Acomba would be replaced by Steve Binder, who had done the 1968 Elvis Presley comeback special. And the more the balance tilted toward the TV camp, the more the project transformed into an old-fashioned variety show that happened to feature Star Wars characters — as opposed to a Star Wars story that happened to be in the form of a celebrity-strewn TV special. (The one exception being the animated segment that would introduce a character named Boba Fett.) The result speaks for itself. It has aired only once in its entirety to date.
Disturbance gives you all of this, bit by slo-mo-car-wreck bit, with testimonials from folks who were directly involved like Binder and writer Lenny Ripps. It also gives you commentary from snarky pop scholars, various superfans, and celebrities like Kevin Smith, Seth Green, Paul Scheer, the late Gilbert Gottfried, and Taran Killam, which — along with talk-show snippets and “ironic” cuts to scenes from movies like Hardcore — makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into one of those old VH-1 I Heart the ’80s shows. It’s great to hear Donny Osmond reminiscence about the Donny & Marie Show season finale that staged what may be the most cringeworthy Star Wars-spoliation thing ever; when you force viewers to sit through several minutes of him talking about how it’s important to be yourself even when people mock you, it may signal that you’ve run out of material and it’s past time you wrap it up.
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What Disturbance arguably does best isn’t how it traces the way this special went from The Thing That Must Not Be Named and, thanks to bootlegs, an object of affection. It’s the way it maps a transitional moment between old showbiz razzle-dazzle and New Hollywood blockbuster entertainment. Watching the Osmonds, Kris Kristofferson and Paul Lynde do cheesy Stars Wars-cosplay musical numbers or suffering through a group of tumblers pretending to be miniature toys for Chewbacca’s son Lumpy were not the exception to the rule — this was the norm. The elders of showbiz assumed this whole sci-fi whatchamacalit, with the robots and the light swords and the heavy-breathing bad guy, was some flavor-of-the-month thing. Not even its creator knew just what he had yet.
Soon, however, these sorts of giant popcorn movies would be everywhere, and like the dinosaurs, this type of kitschy TV show would be nothing but fossilized remains of a bygone era. Yet for one gloriously WTF hour, we got to see these two things crash into each other and cause a pop-culture disaster. A Disturbance in the Force doesn’t come to bury this famous misstep, and it doesn’t quite praise it either. It gives you a snapshot of an industry figuring out how to handle an intellectual property après de déluge.