There are times when you look back at pop culture phenomena and can’t resist the urge to ask: Can you believe this actually happened? Tackling a notorious fiasco in one of the galaxy’s most popular franchises, Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s amusing and exhaustive documentary ”A Disturbance in the Force” unpacks 1978’s “Star Wars Holiday Special.”
You don’t have to be an obsessive “Star Wars” fan to enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at how the special — which premiered Nov. 17, 1978 on CBS, and has never been re-run on any broadcast or cable outlet — came to exist. To be sure, the fans will appreciate it a lot more than casual viewers. But it’s also an irresistible hoot for anyone with fond memories of star-studded 1970s musical/variety TV specials — a specific type of highly popular general audience entertainment that, truth to tell, very often showcased more campy excess than anything in the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”
For those too young (or too discerning) to recall such fare, Coon and Kozak do a first-rate job of placing the “Star Wars” special in context, with a generous array of clips representing everything from a “Donny and Marie” segment (featuring the Osmond duo as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Kris Kristofferson as Han Solo, and dancing Stormtroopers singing a variation of the Top 40 single “Get Ready”) to a “Bob Hope All Star Christmas Holiday Special” sketch in which Hope played Darth Vader opposite the real Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill.
As one interviewee notes: “There were astoundingly worse shows that aired at that time.” Even though none of those shows had Wookies communicating in unsubtitled grunts and snarls.
At a time when such specials were commonplace — almost all of them aimed at viewers older than then-newly minted “Star Wars” aficionados — the prospect of a two-hour TV extravaganza with seasoned vets like Art Carney, Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman interacting with “Star Wars” stars Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher (and bunches of Wookies) may have seemed perfectly sane, maybe even sure-fire.
But things didn’t work out as planned.
Using an abundance of newly filmed talking-heads interviews with the parties involved — and acres of archival footage including participants who clearly didn’t want to discuss the special — the documentary traces everything back to George Lucas’ desire for something that would sustain the high visibility of his budding franchise between the release of “Star Wars” (1977) and the completion of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Yes, as hard as it might be to fathom decades later, there was some worry (and not just on Lucas’ part) that the public might “forget” the first film before the sequel appeared. (Another consideration: There were toys and other merchandise to promote before the Christmas 1978 gift-giving season.)
Unfortunately, after providing an outline for a plot involving how Chewbacca and his family might celebrate of something called Life Day, Lucas more or less walked away from the project to begin pre-production on “Empire Strikes Back.” Even more unfortunately, as the documentary makes abundantly clear, the majority of the people left in charge (including writer Bruce Vilanch, costumer Bob Mackie and producers Ken and Mitzi Welch) had more experience producing traditional variety shows than protecting nascent sci-fi franchises.
All of which explains why many viewers — especially those who tuned in expecting to see some sort of “Star Wars” sequel — responded with slack-jawed amazement to such highlights as a fantasy sequence where Chewbacca’s aged dad takes unseemly delight in watching a slinky singing-and-dancing Diahann Carroll; a cooking-tips video with a four-armed, heavily made-up Harvey Korman in drag; and Bea Arthur serving as barkeep of the Mos Eisley cantina while fending off an amorous customer (Korman again) and ultimately singing a ”Goodnight but Not Goodbye” tune at closing time.
“A Disturbance in the Force” elicits full-throated guffaws as production personnel and innocent-bystander “Star Wars” fans comment on what is widely considered, rightly or wrongly, as an unmitigated disaster. (“The ‘Star Wars’ special sucked so bad,” the late Gilbert Gottfried claims, “I was amazed that I wasn’t in it.”) And while the filmmakers evidently were unable to interview George Lucas — who supposedly has prevented any television or home video release of the special since 1978, even though it’s easily accessible on YouTube — they get a big laugh by representing Lucas’ initial reaction to the show with a clip of a horrified George C. Scott responding to a porno featuring his errant daughter in the 1979 movie “Hardcore.”
On the other hand, Coon and Kozak are admiringly even-handed as they allow for the fact that, hey, scads of folks really and truly liked “Star Wars Holiday Special” back in the day, and that even now there is a sizable group of people (not all of them revisionists) who admit — grudgingly or otherwise — that not only was it not all that bad, it has more than a few worthwhile elements, including the still-impressive animated cartoon interlude that introduced bounty hunter Boba Fett long before his first appearance in “Empire Strikes Back.” (This sequence has been excerpted for presentation on Disney+ and elsewhere, obviously with Lucas’ blessing.)
Again, you don’t have to be a “Star Wars” diehard to value the documentary for its tea-spilling and gossip-mongering. After the original director went wildly over-budget early in production, Steve Binder (a veteran of Elvis Presley specials) came in to right the ship, only to learn that the heavy-drinking Art Carney was difficult at best to work with after lunch, and that he had so little money to complete the climactic sequence that he and assistants had to run out and buy candles in the hope that dim lighting would obscure the cutting of corners and the pinching of pennies.
Speaking of penny-pinching: You know that scene in which Bea Arthur flirts with what appears to be a large rat? The rodent’s head was recycled from a low-budget 1976 sci-fi melodrama, Bert I. Gordon’s “Food of the Gods.” No, really. Then as now, the show must go on.