‘Holiday Special’ Doc Charms as a Reminder of When ‘Star Wars’ Was Gratifyingly Less Reputable

12 March 2023

“Star Wars” could stand to come off its high horse a little bit. Other than the recent “Andor,” which actually did break new ground, the franchise has become stunningly obsessed with itself, regurgitating obscure lore, planting callbacks and cameos everywhere, and generally living in the past.

One of the bits of “Star Wars” arcana that especially pops up? The “Star Wars Holiday Special,” the 1978 CBS catastrophe that’s the ultimate example of exploiting franchise IP into oblivion. The definitive “so bad it’s good” fetish object, the two-hour special introduced Boba Fett as a character to the saga and continues to influence stories to this day — the prong-like rifle sometimes used by Mando on “The Mandalorian” came from the special — even as George Lucas and Lucasfilm famously suppressed it. Lucasfilm even produced its own “LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special” in 2020.

The most shocking thing about Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s documentary about the holiday special, “A Disturbance in the Force,” is that it took 45 years for one to be made. Built around new interviews with the architects of the special (including Bruce Vilanch, of course, and Steve Binder of the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special fame), as well as diehard fans of it such as Seth Green, Kevin Smith, and Kyle Newman, and stunning clips, the doc captures how fan obsession can turn even the most cobbled together piece of cash-in exploitation into something to revere.

But it’s also a charming reminder of when franchise junk could be authentically, idiosyncratically terrible — not just the homogenous, boardroom-steered mediocrity of this moment. No one will be making an 80-minute documentary 45 years from now about “The Book of Boba Fett” or “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

Coon and Kozak deliver some real cultural anthropology here, situating the “Star Wars Holiday Special” in the context of the TV landscape of the ’70s. They show that the “Holiday Special” may not have even been the worst variety show tie-in. There was also a “Star Wars” themed episode of “Donny & Marie,” in which the Osmond siblings played Luke and Leia, and four of their brothers put on stormtrooper armor for a song and dance number. (Donny Osmond is a recurring talking head in the documentary.) Mark Hamill joined Bob Hope (in proto “Spaceballs” garb) and Olivia Newton-John for another one. The “Holiday Special” was far from the best, however. That was likely Richard Pryor’s riff on the Mos Eisley Cantina.

Even as “A Disturbance in the Force” isn’t remarkable filmmaking, it is of true value because of the extraordinary number of clips from variety shows of the era. That’s where Kozak especially shines: he’s been one of TV’s leading clip producers for the past two decades, first for “The Tonight Show” and now for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and he knows how to get clearance for footage that others might not be able to obtain.

It’s also valuable for setting the record straight. In his last years before he died in 2020, pioneering Lucasfilm publicist Charles Lippincott lamented on Facebook that he felt forgotten, or even written out, of the way people remembered how “Star Wars” arrived with a thunderbolt and changed the pop culture landscape in 1977. He’d appeared at San Diego Comic-Con more than nine months before its release to hype it up, tell people a bit about the story, and ensure they’d be a ready-made audience.

He even encouraged the publication of a novelization of the original film months in advance of the film coming out (who cared about spoilers back then?). “Pre-awareness” is such a huge part of the way film and TV execs make decisions today. Lippincott pioneered “pre-awareness” for a title that was then entirely new. The fact that he then left Lucasfilm in 1978 meant he could sometimes be a forgotten part of its story.

Reminding us of Lippincott, as well as some of the other early Lucasfilm employees (such as Miki Herman, who consulted on the “Holiday Special”) is an essential service “A Disturbance in the Force” provides. It’s also moving to see not only the late Gilbert Gottfried share his comments about that era in TV but also Lucasfilm’s former in-house historian, J.W. Rinzler, who died in 2021 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He had written books about the making of the six “Star Wars” films released before the Disney acquisition, then was shown the door following the Mouse’s takeover. (In-depth warts and all production histories of the most recent “Star Wars” films is very much not something the current regime wants, and cease-and-desist letters appeared when he shared more recent intel.)

The thing that comes across so strongly in “A Disturbance in the Force,” even as it wears out its welcome after a while with its Wiki-like dump of info, is how un-replicatable the badness of the “Holiday Special” was. It was the result of distinct personalities playing with this universe like it was a toy chest full of action figures. Where a child’s sense of play meets the sensibility of old TV honchos who may have never even seen Star Wars: let’s have nine minutes of unsubtitled Wookiee roars, an appearance from Art Carney and Bea Arthur, then Chewbacca’s father experiencing a VR performance of a come-hither Diahann Carroll, then Harvey Korman as the galaxy far, far away’s version of Julia Child, then a performance by Jefferson Starship, then Carrie Fisher singing. And though never officially released by Lucasfilm, this thing that people couldn’t see for decades except for the odd bootleg VHS tape, is now just a click away on YouTube.

That’s quite a remarkable bit of nonsense for a tie-in to a movie that had won seven Oscars and been nominated for best picture earlier that same year. The thing is, that was pretty standard in the ’70s, when movies and variety TV existed in very different worlds. It was also pretty standard for “Star Wars,” which, for all its acclaim and popularity, still mined the weird and the disreputable, like so much of midcentury sci-fi, for a very long time: witness the youthened Emperor Palpatine baring his ass in the “Dark Empire” comics, or the three-eyed villain named Trioculus who claimed to be the Emperor’s son. Plus, just one word for you true fans: Waru.

Today it feels that all bad new IP cash-ins are alike. “A Disturbance in the Force” reminds that at one time they could actually be quite singular.

Grade: B-

“A Disturbance in the Force” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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