Power, Patriotism, and Happy Endings: A History of Fireworks in Pop Culture

The evolution of a cliche, from Cary Grant to Katy Perry

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Focus Features

Physics and chemistry make fireworks go boom with pretty lights. But staring up into a night sky, watching luminance blossom in vivid colors, it's easy to think of other things. Love, perhaps. Triumph. Maybe patriotism.

At least, that's what filmmakers, songwriters, and pop-culture creators of all kinds hope is the case. Fireworks have become cheap shorthand, go-to symbols of all things epic and explosive and powerful. As we did last year for the Fourth of July, we've compiled some of the more egregious examples though the years of how the humble firecracker has been used and abused:


To Catch a Thief (1955)

Back when sex could only be suggested, not seen, in cinema, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly coyly conversed in a dark room—ostensibly about giving up a double identity, but nearly as ostensibly about giving up something else. If audiences didn't pick up on the carnal subtext from the dialogue, the increasingly fountainous fireworks that Alfred Hitchcock splices in makes things clear.


Starland Vocal Band, "Afternoon Delight" (1976)

These Australians' classic MOR paen to daytime sex features a chorus that rhymes its title with "skyrockets in flight." Could they referring to Cold War missiles, not fireworks? No: The priceless promo clip above clearly shows that the band believes you can summon Fourth of July anytime by making love under sunshine.


Return of the Jedi (1983/1997)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, fireworks were as easy a way to toast a happy ending as they are today. After a trilogy's worth of battle against the evil Galactic Empire, the Rebel Alliance exploded the second Death Star—and with it Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and untold numbers of innocent stormtroopers. In the 1983 original release, a triumphant firework show ensued solely on the moon of Endor, but with George Lucas's 1997 touch-up (depicted above), we find out that the sky-fire celebration happened on planets across the galaxy.


The World Is Not Enough (1999)

After saving the planet just in time for Y2K, sparks literally fly as James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and Dr. Christmas Jones ring in the new millennium on an Istanbul balcony. Jones has previously admonished Bond to not make any jokes with her name, but she's now smitten, and allows him to get away with two wretched puns (watch mid-way through the above clip to hear 'em). The combo of sex, celebration, and shameless cheese makes the close of The World Is Not Enough a master class in the use of fireworks-as-cliché.


Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Mumbled-mouthed cowboy Ennis (Heath Ledger) struggles with his attraction to fellow sheep-herder Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) over the course of the film, but director Ang Lee makes sure to let the audience know that he's no less manly or American for doing so. How? By having Ennis beat up some foul-mouthed bikers in front of his wife and kids under the spectacular tint of Fourth of July fireworks. (Catch a glimpse of the scene at the end of the above trailer)


"Fireworks" episode, 30 Rock (2007)

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In the midst of so much earnest use of fireworks comes the "Fireworks" episode of 30 Rock, which lampoons our cultural obsession with bursts of light in the sky. NBC executives are looking for a way to boost ratings, so they decide to have a three-hour "Salute to Fireworks" (featuring Al Roker singing his own special version of "Afternoon Delight"). The only problem: It's not the Fourth of July, so everyone thinks the blasts are the result of a terrorist attack.


Animal Collective, "Fireworks" (2007)

Animal Collective is increasingly seen as one of the most influential indie bands of the past decade. Reason No. 1: The conflagration of songs named "Fireworks" on the airwaves over the past few years (examples on forthcoming slides) may have started here. The track is about as heart-swellingly epic as music like this gets; no wonder, given it's about the moments of sky-shooting beauty that break mundane routine. Yes, fireworks can be a proxy for Pitchfork-approved prepackaged preciousness.


Katy Perry, "Firework" (2010)

Sparks fly from Katy Perry's chest—but wait, this isn't a video and a song using the worn trop of fireworks=sex! Nope, it's using the trope of fireworks=unleashed potential. Discouraged kids, overweight teens, cancer patients, chart-dominating pop stars: We're all packed gunpowder, waiting to ignite.


Drake ft. Alicia Keys, "Fireworks" (2010)

Drake is famous for rapping about being tired of being famous before he was actually famous. The lead-off track from his debut showed that he's so tired that he can't be bothered to come up with a less-overplayed symbol for success than fireworks. The morose piano and terse beat, along with Drake's ambivalent tone, stand as a nice example of a subgenre of the fireworks cliché: July 4 connoting wistful nostalgia.


Blue Valentine (2010)

This Michelle Williams-Ryan Gosling indie is the anti-romantic comedy: a sad, bleak movie about the demise of a once-promising relationship. The symbolism of its fireworks-heavy closing credits, then, is almost painfully obvious. Fireworks are beautiful and exciting and electrifying—and then they explode and disappear into the night.

What other movies, songs, or TV shows have committed crimes against fireworks? Leave a comment.

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn & Spencer Kornhaber

Eleanor Barkhorn and Spencer Kornhaber are senior associate editors at The Atlantic.

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