A good biography should endeavor to not simply tell the story of its subject’s life, but also to interrogate that life—by challenging and defending it, putting both its successes and missteps into a greater context. Every person is complicated, and a biography that merely recounts the life instead of probing it is inherently missing something, regardless of how well written or interesting the “story.”
This issue is particularly acute when it comes to a figure like George Lucas, whose biography’s target audience could tell you a good amount about the man before they even crack the spine, and it’s the central flaw with Brian Jay Jones’ George Lucas: A Life. This is the first biography of the director to encompass the Star Wars prequels and everything that followed, and while film buffs won’t be disappointed by it—the eras of cinema it depicts are just that inherently interesting—it’s hard to imagine they’ll be inspired either. It offers trivia instead of insights.
Lucas was in need of a biography’s re-appreciation (or reckoning), and Jones—whose previous subject was Jim Henson—was a good candidate for the job. Given that Lucas is more of a behind-the-scenes figure, with only six real directing credits to his name (four of which are set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), he’s under-explored, especially compared to the others who made their names around the same period and offer more to critically analyze: Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. The latter two figures are particularly significant in this case, serving as not just lifelong friends, rivals, and artistic collaborators to Jones’ subject, but thematic counterpoints.
One topic the book approaches but never quite nails is how Lucas is the most contradictory figure to come out of New Hollywood. He’s a loner, but had an unparalleled instinct for popular opinion. He’s incredibly generous—with his education ventures and financing the non-commercial Kagemusha and Mishima because he respects the artists—but also petty, naming a villain after a critic (Willow’s Gen. Kael) and suing the rapper Luke Skyywalker for copyright infringement. He views himself as a perfectionist, but one indifferent to scripts or actors. He claims artistic integrity as the ultimate ideal, but makes narrative decisions based on toy potential (a Return Of The Jedi plot point was changed because Lucas “didn’t see a big market in dead Han toys,” Harrison Ford reflects). He succeeded where Coppola’s American Zoetrope failed, creating a long-lasting studio that offered complete autonomy and independence, then used it to crank out sequels. He embodied the auteur theory, but successfully ended the era, turning studios toward the blockbuster model instead. Compared with his peers, he’s had the most success but gets the least respect.
If nothing else, George Lucas: A Life serves as a reminder for the staggering amount Lucas contributed to culture. Even if you set aside Star Wars—the only original film ever made where the average person can name a half-dozen characters—and Indiana Jones, you still have his innovations with sound (THX), Industrial Light & Magic, and Pixar (an early LucasFilm division, and a rare occasion of his failing to grasp the potential of something). He changed the way movies look, sound, and are distributed; he changed the kind of stories that are told and vastly expanded the toolkit directors used to tell them. Can anyone outside of Walt Disney claim as large an impact?
Grappling with Lucas’ legacy feel a bit like wrangling a 50-pound water balloon. It shifts around on you. Yes, Lucas’ merchandise-first approach seems indefensible from an artistic standpoint, but is it so bad when the films in question end up being classics? By following his vision completely, wasn’t he adhering just as strongly to auteurism as Scorsese, just with a different type of material? Isn’t his adamance that Star Wars present a positive message at a time of national pessimism just as potent a political statement as his peers were making? (Arguably, a riskier one than cynicism would’ve been.) And did his accomplishments and embrace of digital filmmaking kill something fundamental about cinema?
A popular artist’s life has admittedly lower stakes than other historical figures, but Jones doesn’t engage with what Lucas’ life offers for discussion. Whether Han shot first is silly on its surface, but it raises issues of whether art belongs to the creator or to the fans, and whether changing art after the fact invalidates it. These are tough questions that aren’t grappled with, and that’s a missed opportunity. (The book barely takes a stand on the quality of the prequels; Jesse Hassenger’s amusingly notorious defense of them is far more complex and thoughtful on this subject.)
Or consider the issue of Lucas and race, which is repeatedly mentioned in the book but under-explored nonetheless. The director clearly has his heart in the right place—not only criticizing Hollywood’s failure to produce diverse movies, but putting his money where his mouth is by shepherding Red Tails to screen—but it took Star Wars leaving his hands for the film’s universe to more closely reflect our own. His uncertainty over featuring an interracial romance in A New Hope (he originally wanted a black actor for Han Solo) may be understandable given the era in which it was made, but what was stopping him with the subsequent entries? Is it fair to consider Jar Jar a minstrel-type character? Is Vader an offensive symbol (the idea that black = evil) or a positive one (the idea that black = power; some were annoyed with the reveal of the white man under the mask)? Again, Jones mentions these issues but never really probes them, meaning it’s hard to say whether they’re the unreasonable complaints of nitpickers or indicative of Hollywood’s institutional biases. He brings little to the discussion that you probably don’t already know. The book lacks a strong thesis or point of view; Jones’ ratio of study to storytelling is skewed in the wrong direction.
All that said, it’s fun to read about ’70s Hollywood—though this subject has been written about before, and well, notably in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Pictures At A Revolution. And it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of the process by which Star Wars evolved into Star Wars (Jones’ biggest feat of research is to detail the changes that occurred over each screenplay draft). But it ultimately feels insufficient. George Lucas reads like Jones doesn’t want to offend George Lucas. His research should have told him: There’s power in embracing the dark side.