- Movie Rating -

A Disturbance in the Force (2023)

| August 27, 2023

This review is part of my coverage of The 25th Annual Sidewalk Film Festival

It has been said that “The Star Wars Holiday Special” is the holy grail of bad television.
I’ve seen it many times and, personally, I consider it closer to The Ark of the Covenant.

Amid the most rabid fans of Star Wars (of which I belong) the lore of “The Star Wars Holiday Special” is a blight to which we are ambivalently proud.  Star Wars is a multi-billion-dollar success but, as Lisa Simpson’s teacher once noted: “Everyone needs a blotch on their permanent record.”  Yes, Star Wars is often chocked full of bad tidings.  There have been unwise cartoon shows, bad books, terrible video games and at least one book of Boba Fett.  But that’s all kid’s stuff compared this franchise’s first excursion to television.

“The Star Wars Holiday Special” was aired only once on November 17, 1978 on CBS, at a moment when the first Star Wars film was still hot in spite of having been in theaters for over a year and a half.  But there were fears that the hunger might fade away before Lucas could complete work on The Empire Strikes Back.  So, in that spirit, and given the temperature of television at the time, the brass at CBS decided to shape Star Wars around the most reasonably reliable genre that the tube had to offer: a variety show.

Well . . . they call it that.  “The Star Wars Holiday Special” isn’t really so much a variety show as it is a collage of stuff that kind of resembles Star Wars without actually being Star Wars.  There are Wookiees,  droids, Darth Vader; there are the actors Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, but there’s also Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman and Diane Caroll, all of whom had to wonder what they were doing here.  There is a weird music video featuring Jefferson Starship and another with a holographic tumbling act.  There’s a weird animated bit featuring the debut of Boba Fett that is never boring but isn’t especially entertaining either.  There’s a silverback Wookiee with an underbite who gets to enjoy some daffy intergalactic porn starring Diane Caroll (a role that Cher wisely turned down).  And the whole thing concludes in a celebration of Life Day (think Wookiee Hanukkah) that is topped of with a musical number featuring Princess Leia under the influence and the Wookiees headed off to catch the Hale Bop comet, I think.

How did this happen?  Why did George Lucas lend his name to this odiferous barnacle?  This is the legacy that filmmakers Jeremy Coon and Steven Kozak want to explore.  How exactly did the biggest hit of all time breed something so bad, so unwatchable, so . . . seventies!  To understand why, Coon and Kozak have gathered together a gaggle of fun talking-head interviews with those who created the special, like director Steve Binder, writers Bruce Vilanch and Lenny Rips as well as archival interviews with Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman who, years later, barely remembered it.

What comes to light here is that the special was created by two warring factions.  On one hand, the team from Lucasfilm who wanted the show to truly reflect the spirit of the film.  On the other, a team of creative minds whose experience had been in cheeseball variety shows.  As the team from Lucasfilm pulled away, some to work on Empire and others because it wasn’t going well, the staff eventually only included the variety show people.  The result was a melding of two things that were polar opposites.  Star Wars was not fit for musical numbers and guest stars nor sentimental holiday greetings and the result was an unholy mess.

The reception was bad, but since there was no social media, the special just faded into obscurity almost to the point of having a Mandela Effect among fans.  They talked about it, but no one was sure that it even existed.  But as they got older and VCRs and then the internet came into play, the special was revived and reviled as a barnacle on an otherwise spectacular franchise.

Coon and Kozak have fun with its legacy.  You can carp all day about how and why this special came to be (which the movie explains in detail) but it’s all in good fun, and we get interviews with the likes of “Weird” Al Yankovic and the late Gilbert Gottfried.  There is a very insightful interview with Donny Osmond who explains the effect of having an entire episode of “The Donny and Marie Show” wrapped around Star Wars and how it later “inspired” the Holiday Special.  Plus, there are interviews with fans like Seth Green and Kevin Smith who offer an insight from the fan’s perspective.

What comes across is an interesting portrait of time and place, of how a multi-million-dollar hit can still have a blotch on its permanent record and how fans can recall it with wonder and bafflement but also with a sense of affection and love.  “The Star Wars Holiday Special” is genuinely unwatchable but that’s part of the charm and Coon and Kozak have fun with that.  This documentary tells you pretty much everything that you could ever want to know about that special and probably answers all of your  lingering questions, but they do it in the spirit of fun and with a lot of affection.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary