I first saw George Lucas’s “Star Wars” as a fifth grader in 1977 and was immediately hooked. Droids? Vader? The Force? The filmmaker’s X-wing and TIE fighter dogfights inspired me to assemble plastic-model kits into spaceships and film them with my Super 8 camera against a backdrop of hand-painted stars.
With his “Star Wars” movies, Lucas tapped into the mythological and spiritual, rather than the intellectual, side of science fiction. (It should come as no surprise that Lucas was an admirer of the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell.) Rather than settling for social or political commentary, like much sci-fi of its time, the space saga served as a morality play and posed archetypal battles between good and evil, mysticism and technology, and fathers and sons.
Decades later, the latest turn in the franchise, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” has just landed. Clearly, the “Star Wars’’ industrial complex thunders on like phalanxes of dutiful stormtroopers, recruiting fresh legions of young fans along the way.
The secret to Lucas’s success? According to “George Lucas: A Life,” a deeply researched and striking new biography by Brian Jay Jones, the wildly successful movie and technology mogul couples his “fiercely independent” streak with being a “control freak.”
He’s also notoriously private. Lucas didn’t cooperate with Jones’s project, nor did many of his friends and colleagues. To stitch together his tale, Jones had to rely on previous biographies, interviews, and magazine profiles, which at times make this biography feel more factual and respectful than analytic. Still, overall Jones’s narrative is undeniably spellbinding and will be especially compelling to film nerds.
Like any sweeping epic, Jones smartly lays out the back story of our modest hero who grew up in the farming and ranching community of Modesto, Calif., the son of a stationery store owner father and a mother who read him Grimm’s fairy tales. Young Lucas, however, preferred comic books.
Curiously, his favorite character wasn’t Flash Gordon or a superhero, but Scrooge McDuck who, Jones concludes, shaped the businessman Lucas would become: “conservative and driven, believing strongly in his own vision and pursuing it aggressively, while at the same time nursing just a tinge of nostalgia for better times that may or may not ever have existed.”
You can almost hear teenage Lucas in the whiny voice of his Luke Skywalker, who in the original “Star Wars” gripes, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” His podunk home planet of Tatooine feels a galaxy far, far away from any real action, and same for Lucas, who, like Skywalker, dreams of escape. After a near-fatal car wreck in 1962 in his souped-up Fiat Bianchina, Lucas, an indifferent student who loved to race cars, began to take an interest in movies, which ultimately led him to film school at USC. At a Los Angeles student film fest in 1968, Lucas met another ambitious young filmmaker who would figure prominently in his later life, Steven Spielberg.
Jones, who wrote “Jim Henson: The Biography,” links Lucas’s quest to master his own destiny to early career experiences: directing his 1971 debut feature, the artsy, Orwellian dystopia “THX 1138” (based on his USC student film), which tanked; and his commercially successful, much lauded “American Graffiti,” which finds its roots in Lucas’s youth. Studios ordered both movies recut.
Later, during a 1976 Tunisia “Star Wars’’ shoot, which Jones retells in his prologue aptly titled “Out of Control,” Lucas complains that stingy 20th Century Fox forced him to cut corners. R2-D2 and C-3PO keep breaking down. “Lucas had seen Hollywood tamper with — no, mutilate — his art, not once, but twice now,” Jones writes. “Lucas vowed he’d never cede control over his films to executives at the studios again. What did they know about filmmaking?”
With the gobs of cash he made after the explosive box office of “Star Wars,” released four years after “Graffiti,’’ the control freak bought back his control. He invested in his empire, building up his indie film company, Lucasfilm, and later a secluded campus called Skywalker Ranch. He founded industry-changing tech and film production companies, including special-effects wizards Industrial Light & Magic, the high-end sound system THX, and even the animation studio Pixar (later sold in 1985 “at a fire sale price” to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs). With Spielberg, he co-spawned his next-most famous franchise, Indiana Jones. And he financed the much-derided second “Star Wars’’ prequel trilogy himself.
Some of the most fascinating parts of the book involve the behind-the-scenes tidbits. There’s Lucas’s first marriage to editor Marcia Lucas, largely credited with salvaging “Star Wars” in the editing room, his years of single fatherhood to three adopted children, and his second marriage to Mellody Hobson, a much younger, successful money manager. We see early “Star Wars” casting deliberations (Christopher Walken as Han Solo?) and test screenings with Spielberg (who loved it) and Brian De Palma (“What’s all the Force [expletive]?”). Lucas came of age as a director with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, and other filmmakers who tried with varying degrees of success to upturn the Hollywood major-studio system. Coppola’s indie film empire fell far short of rivaling that of Lucas.
But for the godfather of the “Star Wars’’ universe, control has had its drawbacks. Think of the fan backlash after the “Star Wars” prequels or his ill-fated clunkers like “Howard the Duck.” And Lucas, now 72, has thus far failed to make the “small, personal, arty films he’d been promising to make his entire career.”
As the end credits roll on “George Lucas: A Life,” in a remarkable turn of finally letting go, our hero has relinquished Lucasfilm and the keys to the “Star Wars’’ kingdom to Walt Disney Co. Paradoxically still identifying as the “misunderstood little guy,” the filmmaker can count on being remembered for pioneering digital cinema, creating “some of pop culture’s most iconic characters,’’ and remaking the way movies are “made, marketed, and merchandised.’’ If Lucas harbors any lingering regrets, I suspect they are tempered by his Disney deal’s $4 billion payday.
GEORGE LUCAS: A Life
By Brian Jay Jones
Little, Brown, 550 pp., illustrated, $32
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” Contact him at email@example.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.