On April 7th, 1999, lines formed at the Mann’s Village and Chinese theatres to see the first Star Wars film in 16 years. Filmmaker Dennis Przywara actually stood in line for 42 days to capture the frenzy caused by the release of Star Wars Episode I! True fans clashed over those dramatic weeks as a rivalry ignited between the lines. Meet the fans behind the phenomenon from a Boba Fett musician, a woman who drives an X-Wing automobile, fans crashing Skywalker Ranch, to a high school production of Star Wars the Musical. Starwoids goes beyond the hype to reveal the fandom, the frenzy, and the pursuit to see the most anticipated film in cinema history.
eyelights: its quick look at the pre-Episode 1 phenomenon.
eyesores: its lack of real substance.
“If I see any Ewoks, I’m gonna be pissed.”
‘Starwoids’ is a 2001 independent film that won the Best Documentary award at the Nodance festival. It recounts the cultural phenomenon that was ‘Star Wars’ in the 100 days leading to the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’, the first new entry in 16 years. In particular, it focuses on the die hard fans who camped out for weeks to get tix to Los Angeles’ premiere screenings.
I still remember the hooplah. George Lucas had only recently re-released the original trilogy in cinemas as Special Editions to mark the first film’s 20-year anniversary, reigniting a flame that had been burning consistently but only within certain circles. Suddenly there was massive interest in ‘Star Wars’, the most lucrative and influential series in cinematic history.
As someone who grew up on a steady diet of ‘Star Wars’ in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was one of the curious. I had seen the Special Editions with some of my friends, and I was excited to see a new movie. I made sure to take time off of work to line up a day or two in advance to get tix for the premiere at my local cinema. For two days, I hung out with the die hards.
It was fun and, ultimately, I got tix for a dozen friends and coworkers.
‘Starwoids’ opens with a quick definition of and glance at what a ‘Starwoid’ is (essentially, the ‘Star Wars’ equivalent of a Trekkie, although that name never stuck), before taking us to 100 days before the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’. Some fans were camping for weeks just to see the new trailer, meaning that some movies got bumps in attendance thanks to ‘Star Wars’.
The reactions to even the trailer are completely over the top, with one extremely geeky fanboy saying that God must be ashamed for never having created anything nearly this good. Yikes. One can imagine reactions to the film itself, which initially drew much enthusiasm, despite its myriad flaws. One guy accurately observe that Lucas could shoot hand puppets and it would still be good.
After 16 years wait, that felt true.
Until reality sunk in, that is.
In any event, ‘Starwoids’ is about the line ups, not the movie proper. It interviews fans as they do shifts camping out to get tickets. One group was so organised that they developed a point system to manage their members’ investment and to award tix. They webcasted live and drew the attention of the media, who crowded the sidewalks – much to the annoyance of other campers.
Beyond the mild conflicts that this produced, most people were extremely civilised, and thus received the enthusiastic support of many local shop owners – even though they were sort of loitering in front of their businesses. Impressively, the campers even looked after each other, saving each others’ spots while some went to the bathroom or even went home for showers.
It was actually nice to see strangers be friendly to each other in a highly competitive situation like this, when one considers how aggressive they can be for such things Black Friday and Boxing Day deals. It gives you hope. Heck, even the homeless people took it all in stride, even though, as one of them ironically pointed out, people with homes were taking their place.
The support extended to the campers’ family as well, with the most prominent one, Daniel Alter, getting the go-ahead from his parents to take his high school equivalency test early so that he could finish in time to go camp out. And when he was too sick to do his shift, his dad actually filled in for him, inspiring much admiration from some of the other ‘Star Wars’ fans.
Although one might get the impression that ‘Starwoids’ is one-note, it’s not. There are a number of other segments peppering the 80-minute film, such as:
- A look at ‘Star Wars: The Musical’, a low budget production by high schoolers. God it looks horrid. Of course, I loathe musicals. But dancing Tusken Raiders? I mean, really! Nice costumes, though.
- A glimpse at the ‘Star Wars’ toy collectors, doing the rounds from store to store. Daily. And the difference between the collectors and the resellers. Also the madness of the release of the new Episode 1 toys.
- A quick visit to some of the original film’s shooting locations, such as Mos Eisley space port, the sand dunes, the location where R2 meets the Jawas.
- A trio of fans wander about the vicinity of Skywalker ranch, looking to hop the fence, but security intercepts them before they even come close to doing it.
- Footage from the very first ‘Star Wars’ convention, in Denver, in April 1999.
- A girl who painted her car to look like Luke’s tie fighter, and drives it wearing a fairly accurate flight suit.
- An interview with Phil Brown, who played Uncle Owen in ‘StarWars’. He provides a brief backgrounder on himself, and answers questions about the film.
- An interview with Supergenius, a musician who put out a Star Wars breakbeats album – and walked around wearing a Boba Fett costume with bling around his neck and a turntable for a backpack. No joke.
Frankly, I was surprised by how breezily this low budget documentary (the music is especially cheap, corny – there is no ‘Star Wars’ music here) flew by, given that’s all about people sitting for weeks on end. It’s certainly an interesting document, even if it’s not an especially insightful documentary. It captures a moment in time, a madness that had never been seen before.
For many, it was a once in a lifetime experience.
As for me, I had a good time waiting in line; the people were friendly and I got to discover the extent of their passions (one guy made films with his figurines, for example), watched people simulate lightsaber duels, and shook my head as some wired a TV and VCR through 500 meters of parking lot just to play the movies in a continuous loop night and day.
While the tenuous friendships I made there never grew and quickly dissipated, it was truly a memorable experience.
I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Date of viewing: November 29, 2015