A history of movies and music inspired by the Fourth of July

Fred Astaire performs his firecracker dance number in "Holiday Inn."
Fred Astaire performs his firecracker dance number in "Holiday Inn."Associated Press

Holiday-wise, when it comes to entertainment, Christmas is uncontested champ: “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Home Alone,” Phil Spector hanging tinsel on his wall of sound. Valentine’s Day is a distant runner-up. So maybe the Fourth of July is third? There are more movies and songs and such that have something to do with the Fourth than you might think.

The piece of music most commonly associated with the holiday, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” has about as much to do with celebrating US independence as borscht or beef Stroganoff does. Don’t expect to find those on any cookout menus.

It’s the cannons going off that provides the connection: musical fireworks to go with the pyrotechnic kind. A comparably loud classical piece, Charles Ives’s “The Fourth of July” would be more appropriate programming — with its stitching together of familiar patriotic songs — but it’s far less of a crowd-pleaser.

Space aliens arrive, and the White House gets it, in "Independence Day."
Space aliens arrive, and the White House gets it, in "Independence Day."AP

If it’s a big bang you want, watch “Independence Day.” Other than having its climactic battle on the Fourth, that 1996 sci-fi blockbuster about invading space aliens has nothing to do with the holiday. But when an extraterrestrial spaceship zaps the White House, it sure is . . . pyrotechnic.


Two songs with the holiday in their title are anything but loud. Van Morrison’s “Almost Independence Day” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” are dreamy and inward. Morrison doesn’t so much sing his lyrics as mutter them: “I can hear the fireworks/I can hear the fireworks/I can hear the fireworks/Up and down the, up and down the San Francisco bay.” He may hear the fireworks, but what we hear is a dirge — or maybe it’s a rhapsody on Quaaludes. This was 1972, after all, the year that “Saint Dominic’s Preview,” the album the track was on, came out.


Yet slowness and quiet can make sense in a song about the Fourth. The holiday may be even more about acknowledging the arrival of summer than about patriotism: beaches rather than bunting. “Running, laughing ‘neath the boardwalk,” Springsteen sings. The Fourth is about summer the way Thanksgiving is about autumn and Christmas about winter. Independence Day is a birthday holiday — happy birthday, America! — but it’s a season holiday, too.

Ron Kovic, the Marine who was grievously wounded in Vietnam and became famous as an anti-war protester, was an Independence Day baby. Thus the title of his memoir, “Born on the Fourth of July.” Kovic and Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay for the 1989 movie version. Stone directed, and Tom Cruise plays Kovic.

Willem Dafoe (left) and Tom Cruise in "Born on the Fourth of July."
Willem Dafoe (left) and Tom Cruise in "Born on the Fourth of July." Universal City Studios

With memoir and movie, the title and its patriotic evocation are what connects with the holiday. In “Miss Firecracker,” also from 1989, it’s an annual beauty pageant held on July 4 — hence the title. Will Holly Hunter win? Whether she does or doesn’t, you can be sure, Holly Hunter being Holly Hunter, there will be fireworks. The movie is based on Beth Henley’s play “The Miss Firecracker Contest.”

Speaking of firecrackers, Fred Astaire tap dances with them in “Holiday Inn” (1942). That’s the movie that introduced “White Christmas” (once again, Noel taking precedence over the Fourth). The movie’s premise is that Bing Crosby owns an inn in Connecticut that opens only on holidays, with a revue pegged to the occasion. The Astaire sequence is a knockout. It’s not as memorable as his dancing on the ceiling in “Royal Wedding,” but it’s a showstopper. Not that that makes up for the Lincoln’s Birthday number, where Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds perform in . . . blackface. It’s even worse than you might think.


James Cagney as George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
James Cagney as George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

In a world of three-day-weekend, Monday holidays, the Fourth is one of the few still associated with its own date. So specificity matters. The singer in George M. Cohan’s song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” earns that title because he’s “born on the Fourth of July.” Unlike Kovic, Cohan doesn’t qualify. He was born on July 3, but close enough. Speaking of specificity, John Trumbull’s famous painting “Declaration of Independence” shows the presentation of the text of the declaration, on June 28, 1776, not its signing, on July 4. That’s nearly a week before John Hancock inks his quill to flourish that nation-initiating signature of his, but close enough.

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.