Looking back, 1977 seemed to be the year of the National Obsession. “Roots” was the most watched television miniseries of all time. In the music world, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” was the biggest selling album of all time, a feat unmatched until Michael Jackson released Thriller in 1982. It seemed like you couldn’t hear enough of everything on that album. The release of “Saturday Night Fever” in late 1977 launched the disco phenomenon on the unsuspecting public, complete with a hit movie, a hit soundtrack, and a run on white polyester suits.
Then there was Star Wars.
The cool thing was unlike rock albums and disco, everybody could get into it, including kids. Especially kids! You see, the 1970s had to have been the least child-friendly decade ever. The baby boomers were all young adults, while the so-called Generation X was considerably smaller and therefore, not terribly relevant. Families and children were not considered cool. They got in the way of other pursuits. In addition, changing mores along with the MPAA rating system created in the late 1960s allowed Hollywood to show all of the blood and boobs it wanted, served with a helping of language you couldn’t use in the old days of the Hays Office. Prior to Star Wars, most of the lauded films of the time were R-rated adult fare (not to mention the horror movies). Before it was co-opted by the porn industry, there were even some “respectable” X-rated films like “Last Tango In Paris.” Even the PG-rated movies sometimes went over the line, especially since the PG-13 rating was another seven years away. It was hard to know what you were getting until you were actually watching the film.
There were G-rated children’s movies being made but those were exclusively for the small fry and “The Adventures Of The Wilderness Family” didn’t exactly rack up the Oscars either. Yes, I saw it at a drive-in. There was the edgy PG-rated “The Bad News Bears” that turned out to be a hit, but parents didn’t exactly want their kids to mimic the dialogue from the movie.
Meanwhile on television, there was certainly material that I watched that was family-friendly during that decade: “The Waltons,” “Little House On The Prairie,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Wonder Woman,” etc.. But as the decade wore on, there was more sexuality and violence on shows that even I was exposed to. Two shows that I watched as a kid, “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company” were the reason why somebody coined the term “jiggle t.v..” “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” were tame by today’s standards, but characters frequently slept around.
But here was a movie that wasn’t terribly objectionable on the one hand (unless you were really sensitive to any kind of violence) and was as well-made and innovative as any of the other lauded films of its era. Kids were for the first time welcomed and encouraged to be a part of a popular culture phenomenon.
While Star Wars was child-friendly, teens and adults fell head over heels for it as well. For a full year or so, it seems like you couldn’t get away from it. It was a fever that swept the land and soon it had permeated every aspect of popular culture. Heck, it permeated every aspect of life. Every magazine cover had something about it. Radio started playing cuts from the original soundtrack, followed quickly by Meco’s disco version. It was on the news, it was on the t.v. variety shows, it was in the newspaper, and it was the topic of conversation on playgrounds.
Many have tried to explain why it became such a phenomenon upon its release. I think it’s undoubtedly true that America needed a psychological lift and this film provided it. Younger people may get the impression that the ’70s was a cheerful, carefree time but that’s ret-conned garbage. It wasn’t like “That ’70s Show.” The ’70s were a dark, dreary decade filled with everything from patchy bell-bottoms to avocado kitchen cabinets. The economy was terrible, the oil embargo created legendary gas station lines, social upheaval broke up families and created the Latch Key Kid, and events like the end of the Vietnam War or Watergate left America dejected and demoralized. Is it any wonder why folks turned to drugs?
I think the first film to lift America out of its doldrums was the 1976 hit “Rocky.” Plenty of film critics and theorists believe Rocky Balboa was some sort of allegory for 1970s America, down but not quite out. Star Wars wasn’t only about being hopeful; it was inspirational in the sense that you too could hop into your X-Wing, trust your instincts, and blow that Death Star in your life into pieces. We can do it if we just believed. For a generation that had been told that God was dead, here was a film that had a schmear of spirituality in the form of the Force. I don’t doubt all of this was quite powerful for film audiences.
It also bears noting that there really was nothing like Star Wars before it. The underlying story and themes are older than dirt (and ultimately the reason why the film and the others following it still resonate), but in terms of a cinematic experience, it was something totally new. If you don’t believe me, spend a weekend watching “Logan’s Run,” “Silent Running,” and the collected disaster works of Irwin Allen. The visual effects and cinematography were miles ahead of what anyone was doing at the time, all accompanied by a leitmotif-heavy score. It was a combination of old-fashioned and brand-new filmmaking.