[DOC NYC 2023] A DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE -- A Documentary Showing What a Disaster the STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL Truly Was
Review by Dan Skip Allen
To say I'm a big Star Wars fan would be underselling it. With that comes the fact that I have seen all the films and television shows multiple times. I just want to see Star Wars when I have the time. When I was a kid, I got to see a Star Wars Holiday Special that wasn't as good as the movies I've come to love. In fact, it wasn't very good at all. A Disturbance in the Force shows all the problems of this Star Wars variety show.
Back in the day, I was just glad to see Star Wars on television, but as the years have gone by, I realized it was like a lot of shows and specials back then. It was campy and corny. I can see now why George Lucas and other members of the cast have basically disowned the Holiday Special. With this documentary, there is a story people don't know about with this special: what happened behind the scenes.
There was a lot of drama and financial problems surrounding this special from the perspective of the producers, directors and actors in the special and the studio heads involved. 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios, owned by Disney), wanted to keep Star Wars in the public consciousness. They had appeared on the Donnie and Marie Show to less than terrific results, commercials, and other skits on variety shows like The Bob Hope Show. The Holiday Special was the bottom of the barrel, though. And I'm not the only one that says this. A Disturbance in the Force is littered with dozens of celebrities saying the same thing.
This documentary, like many others, has talking heads to explain why this Holiday Special was so bad. Filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Kyle Newman, comedians like Gilbert Gottfried, Paul Scheer, Bobcat Goldthwait and Taran Killam, musicians such as Weird “Al” Yankovic and Donnie Osmond, and quite a few people involved in making this Holiday Special contribute their opinions to A Disturbance in the Force. The talking heads are numerous — more than I could have ever imagined.
The film has some technical aspects that make it not as normal as so many other documentaries. Two in particular are archival footage showing the creative process behind making the variety show, and cassette recordings from Ken and Mitzie Welch, David Aconda and others, which were very effective in getting the opposite side of this story. This isn't a one-sided story, and that's what's good about the film — it captures both sides.
I loved the background footage and concept art from Ralph McQuarrie, though. Actors like Art Carney, Bea Arthur, Harvey Corman and others who were on the special showed they had an investment in it from the beginning. Musicians like Jefferson Starship, Pete Seers and Diane Carroll performed and had no idea where their performance would fit in the special. Even costume designer Bob Mackie was fully invested in the special, but had no idea what he was involved in. He created a lot of costumes for this variety show.
As a huge fan of Star Wars as a kid, and still today, I am sad to say this Star Wars Holiday Special — which was a glorified variety special — was just doomed from the beginning. It had bad production value, campy acting, and bad songs. The worst part is that the doc shows it tarnished the legacy of Star Wars as a whole at that time in the history of the franchise. Even George Lucas didn't want anything to do with it. The actors involved, including Harrison Ford, still to this day won't talk about it. The people behind it, like Bruce Vilanch and many others, were very candid about how it wasn't very good, but it was work they did, but acknowledge the past. Historians like Steve Sansweet even had nothing to say about it. He's a big toy collector guy, and Star Wars know it all. Even people like Jon Favreau and Seth Green, who have made Star Wars projects today, are interviewed with trepidations regarding the Star Wars Holiday Special. Some things just don't work out, and this was one of them. It's more of a joke than a legitimate Star Wars project. A Disturbance in the Force shows that. The director does a good job showing why it wasn't good and why a lot of people didn't like it.
A Disturbance in the Force is screening at the 2023 edition of DOC NYC, which runs in-person and online from November 8-26.