Star Wars Celebration: Capturing the radio spirit of the late ’70s

April 16, 2015 | 3:00 a.m.
Harrison Ford as Han Solo with his Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca. Kyle Nemwn's radio drams aim to capture the spirit of the first few "Star Wars" films. (Lucasfilm)

Harrison Ford as Han Solo with his Wookiee copilot Chewbacca. Kyle Newman’s radio drama aims to capture the spirit of the first “Star Wars” films. (Lucasfilm)

For about 90 minutes on Saturday at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim, fans will be encouraged to close their eyes.

This isn’t some ancient Wookiee meditating session, but it is an opportunity to get a little old fashioned, so to speak. Celebration, a fan convention dedicated to all things “Star Wars,” will for the second time in its history present an original radio play from writer/filmmaker Kyle Newman, known best for his work on “Fanboys.”

“Smuggler’s Bounty” will be read and taped on Saturday. The play will later appear on the official Star Wars website. For Newman, it’s an opportunity to resurrect a lost art, one that’s tied closely to the history of the franchise.

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He wants to capture the flavor of the “Star Wars” radio dramas that aired on National Public Radio in the early ’80s. Newman says he revisits the radio serials annually, and appreciates how they recall a more innocent time for the saga, as “Star Wars” hadn’t yet been expanded to touch all forms of mass media.

“There wasn’t much out there other than some puzzles, some Underoos, some Kenner action figures and a lot of Burger King-type stuff,” he said “It was very early going. They were still figuring out the pop culture identity of ‘Star Wars’ was, so we try to dial back to that era. It’s much smaller, much more character-driven. It’s the spirit of 1979 just before ‘Empire Strikes Back’ came out. This is a little story in that window.”

Like his “Star Wars: Smuggler’s Gambit,” which premiered at the 2012 Celebration in Orlando, Newman’s “Star Wars: Smuggler’s Bounty” will once again center around lovable rogue Han Solo. This time around, Solo and furry pal Chewbacca find themselves in a mess in which the only salvation may be an old Solo flame.

Though the radio plays are not considered “Star Wars” canon, Newman goes to great lengths to treat the stories with reverence. He makes it clear, for instance, that this is not a joke-filled version of “Star Wars.”

“It’s non-canon but that doesn’t mean you don’t visualize it like canon,” he said. “You don’t take any extra liberties with it. You try to treat it exactly the same way as if it was canon. You don’t approach it on any level, down to the actors and what they’re doing, that feels like we can create new rules. There are finely established rules that are very concrete.”

As to why “Star Wars” translates so well to radio, that question, Newman said, is easy.

“For every visually iconic thing ‘Star Wars’ had, there’s something audibly iconic that’s tied to it,” he said.

“You know the sound of the Millennium Falcon. You know the sound of John Williams’ music. You know Chewie’s grumbling growl or R2-D2’s beeps. That’s what’s fun about it — putting just the sound out there and letting that trigger that image.”

Once an avid “Star Wars” collector himself, these days Newman says he appreciates the series on a more intellectual, analytic level. At past Celebration events, he has hosted talks that champion the “Star Wars” prequels, the late ’90s and early 2000s films that are often maligned in the public eye compared with the original trilogy.

Newman was asked to describe the enduring appeal of Solo and to come at the character from a more academic perspective, especially the pre-“Empire Strikes Back” edition of Solo, which his “Smuggler’s Bounty” will center around.

“He’s the audience,” Newman said. “He’s the cool guy that everyone wanted to be. There’s something rebellious about him. He’s not a rebel yet, but he’s a rebel at heart and he’s a good guy. He’s the guy with the cool car. He’s the guy who will look after his little brother but he’s on his own path.

“I think that’s why people love him,” he continued. “He doesn’t have any special powers other than his heart. He’s great with a blaster, but I’m sure there’s other people in the galaxy who are even better. It’s the spirit of the character people identify with. He has a dog friend.”

Perhaps what Newman’s radio dramas illustrate best is that, after nearly 40 years of stories in multiple formats, much of the “Star Wars” galaxy still remains unexplored. That’s why, he said, he goes back to the near-beginning with the radio pieces, when the possibilities were limitless.

“This universe in the original film touched on so many little things,” Newman said. “You want to spend more time in the cantina. You want to know more about what the Empire has going on. You want to know more about what it’s like to be on Tatooine. You wanted to be in the cockpit with the pilots. You wanted more of everything.

“That film,” Newman said, “set the template and the groundwork for the way ‘Star Wars’ could explode out into all these other forms — movies, books, toys, games, anything. It all goes back to that film. I like going back to that film and saying let’s look at something that’s never really examined.”

— Todd Martens

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One Response to Star Wars Celebration: Capturing the radio spirit of the late ’70s

  1. Chris says:

    Check out The Emperor singing 'All About That Base' and more!

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