Memories of a first-generation “Star Wars” fan

I’m an original Star Wars geek, and I’ve just seen the latest chapter, The Last Jedi, on its opening weekend.  It’s spectacular, as I knew it would be.

But my story as a Star Wars fan begins a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to be exact.

I was there with my parents for winter vacation in December of 1977. School was out between Christmas and New Year’s. We spent several such vacations in Florida; a tropical escape, adorned with beautiful palm trees, as relief from the winter doldrums. This time–it may even have been early on New Year’s Eve–we decided to go to the megaplex or the whateverplex movie theatre in town. My parents opted to see one movie, while I decided to finally see Star Wars, the film the entire world had been talking about.

I sat down, got comfortable in my seat, and almost immediately my senses were under attack, as the huge STAR WARS graphic hit me in the face, to the accompaniment of the dramatic musical fanfare. After the set-up for the story scrolled up the screen and faded, I saw the most unforgettable shot I’ve ever seen in a film: the long, slow progress of a starship, shot from underneath, as it enveloped the screen

…and kept going…and going… and going. I had never experienced such a sense of sheer size so graphically and mesmerizingly shot for a film. My popcorn spilled out of my mouth as my jaw hit the floor. And that was just the opening shot. Watching the rest of the film, I saw jumps into hyperspace, duels with light sabers, a truly frightening villain with deadly powers–well, you know. At 16, it was nothing less than a transformative experience for me. I mean that–and it’s sort of my job to choose my words very carefully.

Afterwards, I met my parents in the lobby, with a gushing review and probably a great deal of nonsense syllables (I wasn’t choosing my words quite as carefully at that moment). I was hooked. I don’t know how many more times I saw it in the theatres, before it ever reached TV screens or video. In 1980 came The Empire Strikes Back, considered by many critics and movie mavens to be one of the greatest film sequels ever. The crowds were enormous. I saw it at the Stanley Warner theatre on Rt. 4 in Paramus,

The exterior and lobby of the fondly-remembered Stanley Warner theatre.

New Jersey. Back then, it was one giant theatre, with 2,000 seats. Watching the room lights dim, hearing the crowd go crazy, and then seeing the STAR WARS logo again, with the same fanfare, and adrenaline-fueled cheer from the audience, was amazing. And so was the film, offering the ice planet Hoth, huge Imperial Walkers, a small, green Jedi master named Yoda, city in the clouds, freezing one of the heroes in carbonite, and a surprise revelation that I actually didn’t believe at first.

The film ended with an implied message from George Lucas to the effect, “see you in another three years with the next one, everybody.” It was to be a long three years.

Opening day for The Return of the Jedi in 1983 was memorable in its own way, as my friend Jody and I returned to the Stanley Warner, to witness a line of people totally encircling the entire building, waiting as long as necessary to get in for the next available showing. Some had brought lawn chairs, others said they had just seen the film and immediately returned to the end of the line to see it again. I never had so much fun waiting three hours in line to see a movie. Again, the anticipation reached delirious levels, and was rewarded with another fantastic trip into the galaxy, highlighted by more space battles, a super high-speed chase through the forest planet of Endor, perhaps the most famous bikini in movie history, and the destruction of the Death Star.

We all thought this was the end of the story, tied up in a neat little bow in its closing moments, to the admittedly corny song stylings of the planet’s diminutive Ewok population.

Then came the long, long period of Star Wars dormancy. Little did we know that the famous trilogy of films would become episodes 4,5, and 6 in a still more expansive saga. Lucas originally described a nine-film series, but later dropped the idea, partly due to exhaustion from supervising the first three installments. But further advances in movie-making techniques encouraged him to return.

In 1999, The Phantom Menace (Episode 1)brought long lines back to the cinemas. Many fans were disappointed, however, by the complicated political story, and felt a seething hatred of the goofy Jar Jar Binks character, for which Lucas got fairly well skewered in the press and elsewhere. I had mixed feelings. The follow-up, Attack of the Clones in 2002, often gets dismissed or overlooked completely, despite many breathtaking

Attack of the Clones.

visuals and exciting sequences, especially one in which we see dozens of Jedi knights battle against the bad guys (to this point, we had seen only one or two Jedi at any one time). Unfortunately, the wooden dialogue, and even woodier acting, especially by Hayden Christiansen as Anakin Skywalker, received still more vitriol from diehard fans.

(Just as a grammatical side note, I happened to observe that the stiffness of the dialogue throughout the second trilogy was often due to the fact that, unlike the original trilogy, the characters were no longer using contractions, saying words like “cannot” instead of “can’t.” To me, this gives the dialogue a more formal, less colloquial rhythm than that of the earlier films. It’s been corrected in the current trilogy.)

Lucas redeemed himself greatly with Revenge of the Sith,   in which we witness Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil, as he is coerced to join the Dark Side of the Force. An epic duel with his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, on a river of molten lava, provides an intense climax to this second trilogy, ending with the birth of Luke and Leia. I still like these films, but I’m in the minority.

In 2012, Lucas sold Lucasfilms to Disney for a cool four billion dollars. His own ideas for the third trilogy were largely abandoned, as J.J. Abrams took the creative helm. The 2015 release of The Force Awakens, picked up thirty

years after Return of the Jedi, introduced to us a new group of lead characters, especially the strong, appealing heroine Rey, while bringing back the original lead trio (and killing off one of them!). Rogue One, released in late 2016, follows a group of rebels plotting to destroy the Death Star, then still under construction. This film is sort of a Star Wars movie without actually being one, but it is nonetheless thoroughly entertaining.

Which brings us to The Last Jedi, with its breathtaking action, and a story that continues to interweave the old, familiar characters with the new heroes and villains. And, oh, that Daisy Ridley as Rey!

And so my longstanding love of this saga remains intact, with more to come, and not too far, far from now.

Until next week…

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday, “Magical Mystery Tour”!

Photo by David Magnus / Rex Features The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios for the ‘Our World’ live television broadcast, London, Britain – 1967

Earlier this year, on  June 1, Beatles fans around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the Fab Four’s masterpiece. The album created a seismic shake-up in the music world, and its release day is credited for launching the “Summer of Love,” highlighted by the live worldwide TV special “Our World” on July 25th, for which the Beatles premiered yet another instant classic “All You Need Is Love.”

Brian Epstein and Paul in the studio.

But that summer ended in tragedy for the group. On August 27, their legendary manager, Brian Epstein, died of what was determined to be an accidental drug overdose. He was only thirty-two years old. His main duties as their manager had been arranging their countless personal appearances and concert tours around the world, but in August of ’66 the group decided to end touring forever. Epstein’s responsibilities were drastically diminished, but he was not out of the picture. Even before Sgt. Pepper was released, Paul came to him with an idea for the group, by which they would create and direct their own film, exactly as they wished, without outside interference from a film studio. Paul had become interested in the current trend of  avant-garde filmmaking by somewhat pretentious young artistes, and was dabbling in making short films himself at the time.

He presented his vague film idea of a magical mystery tour to Epstein. Such coach tours were common then, promising a fun, event-filled day or two for the passengers, without giving too much away as to the destinations on the itinerary. Paul’s film version would, of course, allow for several musical sequences, presenting a new batch of songs for the fans. Contrary to a common assumption that Epstein probably wouldn’t have approved of the film, especially had he lived to see its final form, he encouraged Paul to pursue it, and had other top Beatles employees, such as Alastair Taylor and publicist Tony Barrow, lend a hand with the logistics.

George and John speak shortly after hearing of Epstein’s death.

Upon Epstein’s sudden death in August, the Beatles found themselves shocked, confused, and fairly directionless. Paul in particular felt a sense of panic accompanying his grief, fearing the others might begin to drift and eventually dissolve the group altogether. It was then that he stepped up the effort to get the filming underway, even as Epstein’s death was still so fresh on their minds.

So, in mid-September, with a couple of busloads of friends, assistants, music hall entertainers, and other assorted individuals–plus a small film crew–the “Magical Mystery Tour” began filming, mostly in Devon and Cornwall. Any ideas to produce it with little notice from the general public were quickly foiled, as large crowds followed the coach busses to and from each filming locale. Many who were present never really knew if a particular stop was simply to have a meal, film a scene, or both. It was, by all accounts (including those by the Beatles themselves), a mostly

 

unplanned two-week excursion. There was some preparation involved, for costumes, signs, and building the few makeshift sets needed for certain scenes, filmed at the decommissioned West Malling military airfield.

“Your Mother Should Know” and other indoor scenes were filmed in this West Malling hangar.

After filming, the Beatles spent the next several weeks taking turns editing the footage–sometimes undoing each other’s editing decisions from the previous day–and the one-hour Magical Mystery Tour aired on BBC-1 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). However, at that point in BBC history, only the lesser-watched BBC-2 had begun broadcasting in color. So, the British public first saw the Beatles’ new, splashy, colorful film broadcast in drab black & white, severely hurting the overall effect (Tony Barrow still argues that the initial, black & white airing hurt its impact greatly, from which it never recovered). Plus, the thin, disjointed plot–not really a plot at all–made little sense. The dialogue was mostly improvised, and mostly not very good. The saving grace for Beatles fans, however, were the six new songs themselves:

“I Am The Walrus.”

“Magical Mystery Tour,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Your Mother Should Know.” But even most these self-contained musical sequences were somewhat surreal in nature, no doubt catching a great many viewers off-guard.

After its first broadcast on Boxing Day, the film was widely criticized in the press. It was re-broadcast later on the color BBC-2 channel, which didn’t help. The six new songs were released as a double EP in the U.K. (an EP,

or Extra-Play record, is a 45 single with either one or two songs on each side). In the U.S., Capital Records released the film’s songs in late November, with additional Beatles songs from earlier in the  year: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Penny Lane,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”

The film, to this very day, has never been broadcast in its entirety on a major American TV network. The American album version was released with a 16-page booklet of stills from the movie, but Americans could make no sense of them, without having seen the film itself.

Magical Mystery Tour has suffered for decades as the most glaring of the Beatles’ few creative failures, but it can be argued that it has also received a bad rap. For its day, it was very much in keeping with the sensibilities of a great many young, creative musicians and filmmakers. Psychedelia was in, remember?

I first saw Magical Mystery Tour at the Beatlefest convention many years ago, and I hated it too–loved the songs, hated everything in between.           It was always saved as the last item on the convention schedule, usually shown at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, presumably to clear out the last remaining attendees. Few people stayed to watch it all the way through,  and it felt like a depressing end to an otherwise festive weekend.

But my opinion has changed greatly since then. I now see it as a strange, nonsensical, goofy, but fun film with classic songs. In case you’ve ever seen it and hated it, your opinion might change too. Why not give Magical Mystery Tour another chance sometime? Fifty years is long enough to hold a grudge, especially where the Beatles are concerned!

Until next time…