A Disturbance in the Force – SXSW 2023

A Disturbance in the Force is the Star Wars Holiday Special documentary that Star Wars fans have been waiting years to watch.

November 17th will mark the 45th anniversary of the Star Wars Holiday Special. Thirteen million viewers would tune into the 98-minute disaster in the making on CBS. What better time than now than to present a documentary? At long last, fans might begin to get answers. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Did Han shoot first or not? Okay, I kid on the third question but I had to throw a punchline in there somewhere.

Paul Scheer speaks to the special and its history in Star Wars fandom.

“As the internet grew, it became this sort of like talking point. Are you a Star Wars fan? Yeah. Do you know about the holiday special? Now I know you’re a Star Wars fan. But this really showed a different level of commitment, like most casual Star Wars fans don’t know about the holiday special.”

There are various levels of fandom when it comes to Star Wars. You have the movies only, the movies plus animated/live-action series, movies/live-action series, and then the books and comics among others. How dedicated someone is to Star Wars is seen through what they watch or read. The Mandalorian and subsequent spin-off series now require viewers to watch or be familiar with both Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. But when it comes to the holiday special, it’s not canon but it’s something that Star Wars fans will seek out at some point or another. Unfortunately, it is not officially available so people opt for bootleg copies. I watched it several years ago because I needed to experience the disaster with my own eyes.

Fans will see plenty of clips is this documentary that explores how the special was allowed to happen. Star Wars creator George Lucas was in an interesting place in late 1977. Toys were not in stores because nobody could anticipate its popularity. Also, he knew he wanted to make a sequel but it was a question of how to give fans more Star Wars until 1980. The answer came in the form of a variety show/holiday special with guest stars like Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Diahann Carroll, and Jefferson Starship. Leave it to co-directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak to dig deep in finding out how the Star Wars Holiday Special happened and Star Wars fans are all the better for it.

Bob Hope (left), Olivia Newton John (center), and Mark Hamill (right)
Bob Hope (left), Olivia Newton John (center), and Mark Hamill (right).

You don’t have the holiday special without the previous year’s variety specials. Bob Hope performed with Mark Hamill. There was an entire spoof on Donny and Marie that featured the Osmond brothers dancing in stormtrooper uniform. From a publicity standpoint, they needed to do something to keep Star Wars in the public eye. Variety shows were king in the 1970s so doing a variety show made sense. Nobody would have ever predicted it would be a disaster.

While Lucasfilm might be hiding the special forever, it certainly made an impact on Star Wars canon. Fans will forever remember November 17, 1978 as Life Day but the day is recognized here and there. It was referred to during the very first episode of The Mandalorian in 2019. The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special premiered on the 42nd anniversary in 2020. There are also references on clothing for sale at what looks like Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The only thing that is officially viewable on Disney+ is Boba Fett’s introduction in animation.

Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Anthony Daniels only make appearances in archival clips. A few quotes appear on screen from George Lucas but no formal appearance. It’s a shame that neither Lucas or the surviving stars are on camera for official interviews. Harrison Ford appears by way of his classic 2006 appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. While doing so would make for a strong documentary, they got a few of the writers (Bruce Vilanch, Lenny Ripps) and director Steve Binder so that’s good enough for now. It’s amazing how Binder could direct one of the best concert specials (Elvis) and worst variety specials ever.

I’ll let George Lucas have the last word from a 2018 quote in The Star Wars Archives.

“I hate to think there are people out there obsessing about the holiday special. I’ve spent more time talking about it than I did working on it.”

DIRECTORS: Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak
FEATURING: Bruce Vilanch, Kevin Smith, Weird Al Yankovic, Donny Osmond, Seth Green, Taran Killam, Steve Binder, Craig Miller, Patton Oswalt, Gilbert Gottfried, Lenny Ripps, Paul Scheer, Kyle Newman, Matthew Robbins, Bonnie Burton

A Disturbance in the Force holds its world premiere during the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival in the Documentary Spotlight program. Grade: 4.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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