‘A Disturbance in the Force’ Documentary Shows Love For Old ‘Star Wars’ Special

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Chicago Sun Times
Amusing doc ‘A Disturbance in the Force’ shows some love for awful ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’
By Richard Roeper
December 4, 2023

There’s no defending the half-witted, scruffy-looking TV show that aired only once, but the new movie gives the bomb some affection while putting it in context.

The announcement on CBS the night of Friday, Nov. 17, 1978, seemed harmless enough — maybe even promising:

“Because of the following special program, ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’ will not be presented this evening.”

Nothing could have prepared the world for what followed. Over the course of the next two hours, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” served up one of the looniest, most disjointed, garish, ill-conceived and at times indecipherably bizarre and undeniably dreadful television programming in the history of the medium. Airing once and then disappearing into the mist of mythology, lore and geekdom, this gargantuan misstep early on in the “Star Wars” canon was so unspeakably awful that George Lucas reportedly once proclaimed, “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”

‘A Disturbance in the Force’

Giant Pictures presents a documentary directed by Steve Kozak and Jeremy Coon. Running time: 86 minutes. No MPAA rating. Available Tuesday on digital services and on Blu-ray.

Of course, that’s just the kind of statement that will only whet the collective appetite for subsequent generations to track down copies of the special, which aired only once on broadcast television. These days, as one would expect, we’re all just a YouTube search away from viewing the special in its entirety — but you might be better served watching the exhaustively researched, consistently amusing and at times downright affectionate documentary “A Disturbance in the Force.”

It’s not as if directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak and a fantastic lineup of interviewees — participants in the special, pop culture observers, actors and filmmakers — are making the argument “The Star Wars Holiday Special” was actually any good. After all, they’re not insane. What they are doing is celebrating its terribleness without mockery or cynicism. I mean, what’s the point in making fun of a show that included Bea Arthur cozying up to a giant rat in a “Fiddler on the Roof”-type musical number, Harvey Korman playing a four-armed, blue-faced alien cooking show host not unlike Julia Child, and a fantasy sequence in which Chewbacca’s father dons a virtual-reality type device and watches what is essentially a soft-porn fantasy song-and-dance from a sultry Diahann Carroll? The evidence is already there, in grainy color.

Over a brisk 86 minutes, the filmmakers do a stellar job of providing context and explaining just how the special came to be. It seems crazy now, but because there was to be a three-year gap between the massive success of “Star Wars” in 1977 and the release of “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980, there was concern among Lucas and studio execs that the franchise would fade from the public consciousness.

To keep “Star Wars” relevant, there was a huge campaign to sell toys and action figures. The main characters of “Star Wars” — including Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia Organa and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, not to mention Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2D2 and even Stormtroopers and Cantina customers — were popping up all over television.

Good sport Donny Osmond recalls the horror that was a musical number on “Donny and Marie,” in which Donny played Luke, Marie was Leia, Kris Kristofferson was Han Solo and various Osmond siblings were dressed as Stormtroopers, singing a watered-down take on “Get Ready,” with lyrics such as: “We’re Darth Vader’s raiders and we can’t believe the things that you do, you’re all right … Get ready, cuz here we come ….”

We learn that after Lucas signed off on the show, he turned his attention to other projects and had almost nothing to do with the special, which was helmed by old-school variety show veterans who most likely had little or no understanding of what “Star Wars” was all about.

The basic premise of the special had Chewbacca returning to his home planet to spend the important holiday of “Life Day” with his family: wife Malla, father Itchy and son Lumpy — that’s right, Itchy and Lumpy. (Like “Festivus” from “Seinfeld,” Life Day has become something of a thing in pop culture.) Along the way, however, there was one inexplicably weird set-piece after another, including the rock band Jefferson Starship wearing random, vaguely alien-looking getups while performing a number called “Light the Sky on Fire,” and Art Carney showing up as Trader Saun Dann, a member of the Rebel Alliance who spoke the Wookie language. (We’re told Carney’s scenes had to be filmed in the morning, as his lunches were primarily of the liquid variety.)

Writer Bruce Vilanch and costume designer Bob Mackie share their memories of working on the show. Kevin Smith notes the special “became a currency of sorts in geek culture.” The late Gilbert Gottfried says the show was so bad, “I was amazed that I wasn’t in it.”

We see several examples of how the special has influenced the “Star Wars” culture and has become part of the canon, and how the (actually well-made) animated short within the special introduced Boba Fett before he appeared in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

There’s no known universe in which the “Star Wars Holiday Special” can be considered anything but a magnificent bomb — but how many TV specials are we still talking about some 45 years after the fact?