SXSW Doc Rewinds the Truly Horrible The Star Wars Holiday Special

Wookies go Vaudeville in A Disturbance in the Force

Nov. 17, 1978. The day The Star Wars Holiday Special was broadcast on CBS: 98 minutes of soulless, joyless garbage so bad that George Lucas tried to buy the rights so it would never make it to air. He failed but was at least able to get it thrown into a black hole ever since.

“We’re going to throw you on this show and have you sing and dance.” – Jeremy Coon

Since then, The Star Wars Holiday Special has been a source of horror and wonder, a part of the oft-revised Star Wars canon that has been thoroughly exiled, only emerging through traded tapes and rapidly deleted YouTube uploads. A horrifically misguided variety show that somehow involved Wookie porn, store-bought alien masks, Harvey Korman in space drag, and Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat. It’s bad. And not so-bad-it’s-good bad. Just ... bad. “It’s not as bad as other things that were made at the same time,” explained documentarian Jeremy Coon. “The reason it’s worse is because it’s remembered more because it’s associated with Star Wars.”

So his new film, A Disturbance in the Force (receiving its world premiere at SXSW), is not an attempt to reappraise a show so painful that, the first time he saw it, Coon turned off the tape after half an hour. Instead, it’s a trip inside the wild world of the variety TV special: one-off events made to be shown once, fill airtime on the cheap, and then be forgotten. Coon said, “You could be famous for anything. You could be a football player and they’d go, ‘We’re going to throw you on this show and have you sing and dance.’ That was just what was done.” But that’s not what happened with The Star Wars Holiday Special because this was, after all, Star Wars. Especially over the last 15 years, Coon said, “It just continues to grow and grow as a part of popular culture. It’s just a reference point.”

However, Coon’s documentary (co-directed with Steve Kozak, whose father was Bob Hope’s agent) is also an examination of the early days of the Star Wars phenomenon, and the undervalued role of Charley Lippincott, Lucasfilm’s original guardian of Star Wars as a brand. Moreover, it’s about how the Holiday Special happened at a bizarre moment, in the crossover between the last gasp of the variety show and the time before Star Wars became a highly protected intellectual property. “It couldn’t have been made any other time,” Coon said. “It would have turned out differently, based on the context in which it happened.”

And A Disturbance in the Force also chronicles ... if not the rehabilitation of the special, at least a begrudging acknowledgment of its existence. The Mandalorian has an Easter egg laid by the special’s Boba Fett cartoon (the only good part of the show), and Disneyland now celebrates Life Day, the Wookie version of Thanksgiving. However, Coon isn’t eager for it to ever become part of the Disney+ library. “I don’t think it would do anyone any favors,” he said. “It would make it less cool, and without any context, if you’re just watching it by itself, I still don’t think it’s a very enjoyable experience.”

Documentary Spotlight

A Disturbance in the Force

World Premiere

Sat 11, 8:45pm, Alamo South Lamar

Tue 14, 11am, Zach Theatre

Wed 15, 6pm, AFS Cinema

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SXSW 2023, SXSW Film 2023, A Disturbance in the Force, Jeremy Coon, The Star Wars Holiday Special, Star Wars

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