On Nov. 17, 1978, Princess Leia sang these lyrics to the melody of John Williams’ Star Wars theme: “We celebrate a day of peace/A day of harmony/A day of joy we can all share/Together joyously.” It’s a rough moment in Star Wars history, and certainly, even the children of 1978 were uneasy about putting words to that iconic music. Chewbacca was wearing a red robe, Luke Skywalker had a haircut that didn’t make him seem like Luke at all, and Han Solo seemed like he wanted to be somewhere else. This was the ending of the Star Wars Holiday Special, a bizarre television event that was aired only once. And, when Star Wars blossomed into a lasting and serious cultural phenomenon, George Lucas tried to make it seem like it had never happened.
“You can’t blame the people who were just doing their jobs,” Jeremy Coon tells Den of Geek. He’s the co-director of a new documentary called A Disturbance in the Force: How the Star Wars Holiday Special Happened. Along with Steve Kozak, Coon keeps this documentary away from any kind of fan outrage and firmly focuses on answering that question in the doc’s subtitle: How?
A Disturbance in the Force aims to debunk not so much the myths surrounding the holiday special but to push back against the collective mood. The delightful film—which debuts at the SXSW Film & TV Festival—isn’t trying to make some outrageous claim that the Holiday Special is somehow secretly brilliant. “I don’t find it very enjoyable to watch,“ Coon says with a laugh.
“When I first set off to do this, I was like, ‘oh Disney, those jerks, they should release this.’ But I’ve actually come around to the other side. I understand their position because you can’t watch the holiday special out of context.”
And that context is 1970s TV. In order to understand the Holiday Special, A Disturbance in the Force places it in the correct pantheon of its peers: other weird 1970s random TV specials, like “Wayne Newton at SeaWorld” or “The Brady Bunch Variety Show.”
“The Star Wars Holiday Special was a product of its time,” Coons explains. “We tracked down almost everyone who worked on this that’s still alive. And a lot of them were older when they worked on it, and it was just another thing that came through. If you were 45 when this came out, you didn’t care about Star Wars, and they didn’t.” This is probably the most important and quietly profound insight in the documentary: it’s not that The Star Wars Holiday Special is all that strange; the phenomenon of Star Wars itself is strange. Since 1977, the first Star Wars film has been elevated by critics and fans into some kind of untouchable pop culture masterpiece. But one year after the movie came out, it was just a movie.
For those of us who came of age in an era in which Star Wars has always been on VHS or DVD, it’s important to remember things used to feel very different. If something was on TV and nobody was around to record it, it basically didn’t happen. For Coon, this kind of ephemera is of specific interest. Along with Tim Skousen, he directed Raiders!, the 2015 documentary that told the story of a 1989 shot-for-shot fan recreation of the first Indiana Jones film.
“I like the idea of going back in the past,” Coon says. “There’s so much video out there that’s just forgotten. Until 2002, I thought the Star Wars Holiday Special was an urban myth because it’s so hard to find.”
The legacy of the Star Wars Holiday Special is still with us. As Coon points out, the Star Wars Holiday Special includes a wonderful cartoon interlude that introduces Boba Fett a full three years before his first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back. The rifle used by the title character in The Mandalorian season one was a direct homage to Boba Fett’s weapon in the Holiday Special, even if George Lucas didn’t care. Hilariously, A Disturbance in the Force reminds us that the creator of Star Wars doesn’t even want to talk about the good things from The Holiday Special. As A Disturbance in the Force proves, even if Lucas wants to pretend like he had nothing to do with it, there’s a paper trail proving that’s not true, including a five-page treatment written by Lucas himself.
On this point, Coon is sympathetic: “I feel for him because at the time he’s in his 30s, and he’s made the biggest film ever,” Coon explains. “He’s getting these things thrown at him, and he’s getting ready to do The Empire Strikes Back. You can’t really blame Lucas.”
A Disturbance in the Force is screening at SXSW on March 11, 14, and 15. Check out the schedule here.