Book Review: George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones

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In the first full length biography of George Lucas to appear in some time, biographer Brian Jay Jones supplies an updated and balanced account of a key figure in creating modern pop culture.  Since the publication of Dale Pollock’s “official” biography in the mid 1980s, few have surpassed it in terms of sources and analysis.  Pollock gained personal access to Lucas who granted him several hours of interviews. These days Lucas keeps a low profile and prospective biographers must rely on secondary sources and old interviews.  Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls did get some rare interviews with those who knew Lucas best, including his ex-wife and former collaborator Marcia. Although lacking in primary sources George Lucas: A Life is written with clarity and a keen sense of narrative making it a fine addition to any film enthusiasts library.

Born and raised in Modesto, California, Lucas had a typical middle class upbringing. After a nearly fatal car accident before graduating High School he put aside his ambitions to be a race car driver, took his studies seriously, and got into USC film school.  The timing and place could not have been better, along with rival school across town UCLA, both film departments produced the next generation of filmmakers who would remake Hollywood into their own image.  Jones is especially strong on these years with keen analysis on Lucas’s student films, tone poems influenced by abstract art. Quiet and unassuming, his peers considered him the most talented among them.

Lucas’s life changed after meeting Francis Ford Coppola while working as his assistant on the 1968 musical Finian’s Rainbow.  Not yet 30, Coppola had already directed several films and had big plans for the future.  Resentful of Hollywood’s unwillingness to take chances, Coppola created Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco, a haven for young artists to work without restrictions:

Coppola saw Zoetrope as occupying the same space in film that Beatles Apple Corps did in music – a company in which creativity trumped commerce, and every voice deserved to be heard.

Lucas became Coppola’s protege at Zoetrope, a false start to create an “American New Wave” of cinema that had money problems from the get go.  Alter egos from the start, Jones relates how their friendship went through many peaks and valleys as their career fortunes changed.  With Zoetrope being too anarchic in structure, to keep it going Coppola took director for hire work for the Hollywood studios, a little film called The Godfather (1972).

In the years between 1968-1977 Lucas continually lived on the edge of financial and career catastrophe.  His debut feature THX-1138 (1971), an experimental dystopian film that was too “out there” for the general public.  So at the urging of Coppola, Lucas wrote something more accessible, a low budget film based on his youth called American Graffiti (1973), which turned a major profit for the studio and allowed him to make his crazy space adventure titled The Star Wars.

Once again Jones covers familiar ground on the making of Star Wars, a topic covered at exhaustive length in Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars. But Jones condenses the information well and never gets too bogged down in detail.  Lucas spent three years on the screenplay, struggling at an activity he dreaded: writing.  Every aspect of Star Wars from the difficult shoot in Tunisia and England, incessant pressure from the studio, creating his own special effects company from scratch all took a heavy toll.  Much to everyone’s surprise, Star Wars became the blockbuster of all blockbusters.

Jones notes Lucas once considered selling off the rights to Star Wars so he could pursue his interest in abstract film. Not immune to the mania of Star Wars, Lucas decided to continue the story.  He put up his own money to make the sequel The Empire Strikes Back.  Becoming more of a mogul with each year, Lucas hired other writers and directors for the sequels.  If the sequel had flopped Lucas would’ve faced bankruptcy, but Empire was a commercial and critical success.  As a follow up, Lucas produced Raiders of the Lost Ark with his friend Steven Spielberg, which became the Box Office champ of 1981. They were taking over Hollywood.

During the production of the third Star Wars film Return of the Jedi (1983), Lucas’s marriage to Marcia unraveled due to his workaholic lifestyle. Critics also noted the light weight nature of Jedi, accusing it of being more of a toy commercial than a movie. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan grew frustrated at Lucas’s refusal to accept critical feedback and obsession with merchandising. With the trilogy complete Lucas told an interviewer:

I’m burned out . . . Star Wars has grabbed my life and taken it over against my will.  Now I’ve got to get back to my life again, before – before it’s too late.

So Lucas settled into running his companies, producing the occasional project, being a single dad to his three adopted children, and staying on the cutting edge of film technology. Jones makes a strong case that these years made Lucas more of a complete person. Although he stopped making his own films, he supported other directors who needed financing – even for Coppola on Tucker: The Man and His Dreams (1988).

Industrial Light and Magic became the premier special effects company, achieving a CGI breakthrough on Spielberg’s dinosaur film Jurassic Park (1993).  THX speakers were installed in most movie theaters for the highest quality sound out there.  For the TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Lucas controlled every aspect of production from his Skywalker ranch, using the latest computer technology to edit each episode, intending the series to be used for educational purposes (Lucasfilm was a pioneer in multimedia education).

With technology advancing at a rapid pace and facing repeated queries for more Star Wars movies, in 1994 Lucas dived back into the saga with gusto. The planned prequels would take place before the original episodes  and would focus on young Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. With Lucas having complete creative control, fans expected greatness. While The Phantom Menace (1999) broke Box Office records, critics and fans turned on Lucas. Critics took aim at Jar Jar Binks for being a racial stereotype and complained about the onslaught of CGI effects.  With the internet taking off, fans had an outlet to voice their displeasure with The Phantom Menace (although younger fans were more receptive). Today, Lucas avoids the internet entirely.

Despite the unfavorable reaction to the prequels, Lucas loved making them.  Shot almost entirely on digital cameras, it was the type of film making Lucas dreamed of back in film school.  In spite of the wooden dialogue and choppy pace, all three movies were major box office hits.  After completing the new trilogy Lucas continued to develop TV projects and further inflamed fans with the unfortunate fourth Indiana Jones film Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). In 2012 he shocked the entertainment world by selling his company to Disney with a price tag of $2 Billion!  In 2015 Lucas seemed miffed Disney rejected his treatments for the Star Wars sequel trilogy, although he will play a role in the next Indiana Jones film. As for the future, Lucas is currently planning to build a museum based on his creations.

As a full length biography, George Lucas: A Life is a complete portrait of a man full of contradictions. On issues of money Lucas is a tough negotiator with the small town business values of his father, while at the same time he’s taken a number of creative risks (with some triumphs and awful misfires).  Jones also argues Lucas proved to be a prophet of technological progress, always a decade ahead of the competition ( he predicted streaming services back in the 1990s.)  Whatever Lucas’s legacy or the quality of his work all can agree his footprint on pop culture will be around for a long time to come.

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