Book Review: George Lucas, A Life (by Brian Jay Jones)
To many of us, there is a name. A name that can cause a person to respond in a number of ways. From a smile, all the way to an eyeball-rolling groan.
That name, is George Lucas.
Following his 2013 biography on Jim Henson, author Brian Jay Jones has tapped into another name many of us recall from our childhoods, but (probably) never fully comprehended.
George Lucas: A Life seeks to educate the masses, giving us a tome that hits a number of Lucas’ life highlights, from his near-death accident as a teenager, to meeting director Francis Ford Coppola, and much more…but sadly, not as much as I had expected.
Without appendices and the bibliography at the end, Jones’ biography on Lucas clocks in around the same page-count as his Henson bio did. However, upon reading through his latest tome, it feels like Jones was forced to shore up a number of items regarding Lucas’ history.
Unlike his previous book, the doors were not thrown open to Jones, regarding in-depth research on his subject. A few of Lucas’ past acquaintances (such as Randall Kleiser and Gary Kurtz) contribute a few words to the book, but most of their inclusions feel like a small footnote, as the vast majority of information, is culled from other sources.
One habit Jones had in his Henson biography, was a certain ‘geeky giddiness’ when he’d mention Henson working on things in his early days, that he’d accomplish later on in life. Jones manages to tone down some of that geekiness here, but it manifests itself in other ways.
Most notable is in the book’s focus. Overall, it feels like analyzing the Star Wars films is his first priority, and the building of the Lucasfilm ’empire,’ is the second priority.
To many out there, Star Wars is George Lucas’ ‘calling card.’ Most talk about the film series, as if Lucas had known this was what he wanted to do since he was a boy. Of course, those of us who have ‘studied’ Lucas’ career (myself included), know that there’s more to the man than just X-Wing fighters and laser-sword fights.
When it comes to films Lucas worked on that weren’t related to Star Wars, the book’s information in these areas feels so tight, one swears large swaths may have been cut editorially, to fit George’s film career into a neat little package. I was hoping more light would have been shed on some of Lucas’ lesser-known projects like Willow, or 1994’s Radioland Murders (a film he’d been helping develop for over two decades!). Unfortunately, minimal information is provided, as we are whisked on to talk about the effects Star Wars has on Lucas’ life, let alone the constant inquiries in the 80’s, regarding when the public would see more Star Wars.
One of the highlights of the book, is how Jones attempts to allow some visibility to one of the lesser-mentioned persons in Lucas’ early life: his first wife, Marcia.
While Lucas could be soft-spoken and quiet, Marcia was said to balance out that trait, often being rather ‘direct’ with him. Both bonded over their editorial experience (women doing editorial work, was extremely rare in the 60’s and 70’s), and it is surprising to find quotes of Marcia, discussing George and the films she worked on with him.
The book tells how she could be rather blunt about some of his decisions (she tells George how THX-1138 feels like a ‘cold’ film), and also how much she contributed to his work (she was the main editor on the climactic charge on the Death Star in the 1977 Star Wars).
Most biographies have the author attempt to find a through line to define their subject’s life, and in the case of Lucas, Jones seems to zero in on one word: independence.
Lucas is painted as a person who seemed most at ease when doing things (mostly) on his own. It often feels like he would have been comfortable just sitting in the editing room, except for his compulsion to have more control over some projects. Jones mentions such a thing happening on some producing projects, here Lucas seemed to take over the story development of some features.
It is also notable how he often balked at rules or guidelines others would set.
For example: his not including cast/director credits in the opening of Star Wars, was in violation of the Director’s Guild of America. This led to him being fined, and eventually resigning from the DCA.
He also seemed to have little time for unions or trade groups, let alone the Hollywood studio system. Many may be surprised that as much as his name is bandied around Tinseltown, George actually makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In some ways, Lucas seems very much like Walt Disney: a man who was burned by the studio system that sought to control him, prompting him to decide that he would do things his way, and answer only to one person: himself.
However, while Walt Disney’s Kingdom would be easily accessible to many, Lucas’s ‘Empire’ would be largely his own domain to look over. He would choose the film projects, decide where his money went (he didn’t rely on outside investors, or taking out huge loans like the studio system), and keep public access to a minimum (notable is that unlike The Walt Disney Company or Pixar, Lucasfilm never became a publicly-traded corporate entity).
Similarities could also be made regarding their love of pushing technology. Whereas Walt would revolutionize the world of animation, George would do the same in the world of post-production. While many can easily look at his visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, most discount his push to improve picture and sound quality in theaters, let alone find a way to streamline the film-editing process.
Today’s theater system shows the fruits of that push: many theaters now house digital projectors, and often boast the latest sound systems to show first-run feature films. Plus, the majority of all editing these days, is done digitally.
The biography also shows how George could fall in and out with a number of people. Old friends like Gary Kurtz and his ex-wife Marcia, were completely excised from his mind, while his friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, would be a decades-long on-again/off-again friendship.
Out of all his friendships, it seems that the one Lucas still holds in high regard, is with director, Steven Spielberg.
There is a brotherly give-and-take mentioned in the chapters telling about the Indiana Jones film productions. Even if Steven and George would not agree on something, they would usually come to a compromise, sooner or later.
Much like Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve jobs, and Jones’ previous biography on Jim Henson, George Lucas: A Life strives to inform people about someone they think they know…but maybe, don’t.
There’s plenty of information for the uninformed, to find out more about one of the most familiar names in popular culture. However, for those of us who were expecting some further revelations about ‘the maker,’ it feels like Jones shuts the door to some minor revelations, that noone ever thinks to consider about Mr Lucas.
In conclusion, George Lucas: A Life is a good read, but probably not as entertaining or informative, as some of my other favorite biographies, such as Steve Jobs, or Jim Henson: The Biography.
Final Grade: B