A Disturbance in the Force

The most quaint example of catering to corporate groveling resulted in one of the best cult phenomena of the recent past.

In 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special melded a brand new hit movie, in its nascent period before its ascent to cultural significance, with the low standards of then television variety specials. Believe me when I say television has not gotten better since the late-70’s.

A Disturbance in the Force breaks down the evolution of the CBS Thanksgiving special that preempted both Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk.

For years it was derided with actual scorn. But now you can’t shift your eyes away.

The first nine minutes and eleven seconds (I haven’t personally timed it but that’s what the filmmakers claim) unwind silent dialogue that was replaced by the warbling and intonations of Wookies.

The Star Wars Holiday Special is really about Chewbacca and his Wookie family. They are not a rookie family.

The remaining two hours, including commercials, was a phantasmagoric journey through sit-com humor coupled with Star Wars mythology of the future.

For the next couple of generations, a horde of sci-fi fans would seek a better understanding of everything from Boba Fett to Maude.

A Disturbance in the Force brilliantly ties together so many loose ribbons that in themselves explain the insanity of cult adoration, while paying respect to the process of how such productions get made. There’s even room for spinoff topics like commercials that ran nationally as well as the plugs that ran locally. One area newsman made a comment that resulted in the phraseology paving his way to subsequent future fan conventions.

No stone is left unturned as directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak meld interview clips with participants and sew the fabric of imagination together to produce a coherent view of what the experience must have felt like to first time viewers.

The documentary opens on a montage of previous Fall 1977 television specials that devoted time to parody Star Wars as seen on shows as wildly bizarre as Donnie & Marie Osmond (Kris Kristofferson plays Hans Solo in a skit), Richard Pryor, and Bob Hope (Mark Hamill mugging as Old Ski Nose plays Darth and Olivia Fig Newton John play Lea).

By the time The Star Wars Holiday Special broadcast in late 1978, it was already a four-star, deliberately calibrated TV event that would bridge the gap between Jimmy Carter stoners and groupthink economics.

The special itself is free of dialogue for the first nine minutes and eleven seconds. This may be the most liberal interpretation from the directors. I have yet to rewatch my VHS copy of the special that I bought on Ebay in 2002 to confirm some of the tales told in this outstanding documentary, but I look forward to that day.

The best part of the film is how it breaks down the interviews with clips from talk shows with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to actual talking heads, with participants who were part of the production and more importantly the writing team.

The scribes was practically a baseball team sized consortium of comedy writers (like  Bruce Vilanch, or the core writers for the musical interludes for The Carol Burnett Show). In the show’s credit roll not everybody gets a mention including the one of the two directors (Steven Binder and David Acomba) who shepherd the project at different intervals.

This story has more twists than a string-theory pretzel. In the successive years after its release, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford (there’s a particularly eloquent Conan O’Brien clip that slays) would disavow the show like it was a Mission: Impossible episode gone astray. Sure they were under contract but after success it’s an eye roll.

George Lucas was involved in the early planning stages but was quickly absent due to commitment for a little film called “The Empire Strikes Back.” In the next century Jon Favreau is telling Lucas how he integrated the Fett character as he appeared in the holiday special into The Mandalorian.

The filmmakers expertly balance the scale that distinguishes the best documentaries. We are constantly wavering between camp laughter and objectively earned respect.

A Disturbance in the Force, which had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, is now unwinding in select theaters.

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