It’s hard to believe this special exists, and if it was up to George Lucas, he’d probably wish this program was wiped from everyone’s memory. The new documentary, A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened, as the name implies, explores how this special came to be. From directors Jeremy Coon (Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made) and Steve Kozak, A Disturbance in the Force is an interesting look at when brands could be a little weird, and as one interviewee describes it, when we had Lucasfilm 1.5—not quite starting off, but not quite as protective of this franchise as they are now.
A Disturbance in the Force begins by showing the impressive marketing and pre-release buzz that was built around this small sci-fi film, which led to it becoming one of the biggest box office draws of all time. With momentum like that, it’s understandable why the studio wouldn’t want to let that excitement die down, which led to an attempt to market this series in a way that might seem silly to us now. For example, with Star Wars toys not ready for Christmas, kids would get a poster showing the characters they would eventually get, once they traded in a coupon.
Similarly, we see other odd choices, like having an entire Star Wars segment on the Donny & Marie variety show, complete with Kris Kristofferson guesting as Han Solo. Surprisingly, with all the interview subjects, the most interesting might actually be Donny Osmond, who talks about how cool he thought having Star Wars as part of their show was, and how silly it looks now. But much in the way Lucas seems to hate the Holiday Special, Osmond also disliked his own show at first. Later on in the doc, he talks about how he’s grown to embrace the past, for good and bad, accepting the choices made, and has seen how failure motivates going forward—and that because of this, maybe Lucas should also embrace the Holiday Special that he has shunned.
Coon and Kozak present the situation which the Holiday Special came out of, and the strange combination of creative talents that brought about this misguided show. Almost from the beginning, it seems as though the Star Wars Holiday Special was always more interested in being a variety show with some Star Wars details instead of becoming a sort of Star Wars Episode 4.5. Hence, why there’s more Bea Arthur and Art Carney than Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in the Star Wars Holiday Special.
A Disturbance in the Force goes segment-by-segment through the Star Wars Holiday Special, not only explaining what the hell was going on with each piece, but also exploring the inherent weirdness in each sequence. At times, this can almost feel like just pointing out the obvious, and laughing at the ridiculousness that fans already know exists, but the doc always swerves away from these moments before it overwhelms the overall film.
Yet this isn’t wholly about laughing at the Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s also about trying to understand how this could’ve happened. And while it’s hard to not poke fun at this insanity, A Disturbance in the Force gives us the context as to how these choices were made, and also praise what does work. For example, we spend quite a bit of time looking at the still-impressive Boba Fett cartoon, and how the quality of this piece has led to references in the current iteration of the Star Wars universe. As Donny Osmond of all people said, sometimes embracing mistakes can be a good thing in the future.
A Disturbance in the Force ends up being a celebration of Star Wars and its history, even in its weirdest forms. Many of those interviewed talk about how even though the Star Wars Holiday Special wasn’t what they wanted as a kid, and it’s still a confounding experience, it’s a part of this series that they love, with it’s pros alongside the many cons. The look at Lucasfilm as they try to figure out how to keep Star Wars fever going is like looking at a version of entertainment that could never happen today, with a company doing whatever they can to keep audiences engaged and interested. Lucasfilm 1.5 might be full of the most unbelievable moments in Star Wars history, yet in hindsight, it’s also a fascinating period for one of the biggest movie franchises of all time.
At times, A Disturbance in the Force can feel almost like a glorified Blu-ray extra for a Star Wars Holiday Special release that will probably never come to be. And for those who already know this universe inside and out, it’s unlikely there’s much that diehard Star Wars fans will learn from Coon and Kozak’s documentary. But even though it is a fairly straightforward, surface-level doc at times, A Disturbance in the Force is a worthwhile look at accepting the flaws of the past, the media of the 1970s, and a period when the biggest franchise in the world could do some weird-ass shit that would still (mostly) be embraced by the fans.
A Disturbance in the Force made its debut at the 2023 SXSW Festival