'George Lucas' bio: Industrial Light, but too little magic

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George Lucas: A Life

By Brian Jay Jones
Little, Brown.
560 pp. $32

 

Reviewed by Rick Moser

Any life closely examined has drama and interest, feeling and meaning. Brian Jay Jones' George Lucas: A Life is no exception. But, in taking it on, I couldn't avoid wondering why anyone would want to write it. Given the size and fervency of the following for Lucas' products, there's obviously an audience for it. Still, in a biography world currently taken by a subject as rich and substantive as Alexander Hamilton, this may not be the one you're looking for.

In many ways, there is simply not all that much to the story. Lucas made one art-house film, THX 1138 in 1971, that failed commercially. He moved on to a hit with 1973's American Graffiti. That allowed him to make Star Wars in 1977 - and that's fundamentally the end of the story. The rest is just the minding - for better and worse - of the franchise.

There's a lot of fun in Jones' retelling of Lucas' early years - of growing up California American Gothic, of film school at USC and the early days among other great film figures-to-be. Tales of Lucas with his "big brother" Francis Ford Coppola and his "little brother" Steven Spielberg - among others - in their early days feels like a prequel film itself. Film geeks will rejoice at the detailed explanation of how Star Wars was made. And there's great insight into the way the film industry works - and how Lucas and company changed it.

But the portrait is, ultimately, of an entrepreneur and tycoon, because after Star Wars, anything one might call "art" ends. And though Lucas was also an innovator in other aspects of the modern movie game - technology, merchandising, making sequels - the fact remains that he made a few good movies four decades ago and has made a huge amount of dross since.

Jones credits him with having "an inherent ability to hire the right people, and a preternatural knack for asking the right questions." But this makes him, more than anything, the Steve Jobs of the film industry: not the guy who did the inventing, but the one whose vision - and insistence on seeing it realized - drove others to make it happen.

That's not nothing. But the second half of the book - focusing on things such as Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic visual-effects company, as well as lesser business details - is like going from the romance and excitement of Star Wars to the legalistic trade and diplomacy of the second trilogy.

Lucas emerges as a likable and largely admirable person - a tremendously accomplished guy who's enjoying his life and has done good things with it. But, again, is that a story worth telling - much less reading about and paying for?

This review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.