It’s Independence Day in the U.S., which means that not only am I not sitting at my computer, but most of my audience isn’t as well. To my international readers, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to put up with a bit of silence here while the rest of us go eat hamburgers and hot dogs and set off fireworks.
In the spirit of the holiday, I’ve selected a few films that I think are worth a watch and which have some connection to the culture of the United States. I’m not giving full reviews of these, just giving a brief little summary of why I think they belong in a Fourth of July movie marathon, if you should happen to be holding one of those instead of shooting off bottle rockets.
Ralph Bakshi is known for producing several feature-length animated films that aren’t for kids. Some of them are strange, and some push the boundaries of good taste. American Pop may be his best film, an animated feature for adults that doesn’t feel like it has to be pornographic to be “mature”. It starts off with a young man who immigrates to America, and follows his family through four generations, and follows the trends in popular music at the same time. Bakshi’s odd, almost gritty-feeling line art works unusually well for this story, which doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the characters lives as they go through the Great Depression to the drug culture of the sixties and on into the late seventies. But it also has its upbeat moments, and it has a great soundtrack, featuring tunes from Scott Joplin to Janis Joplin, from Carl Perkins to Bob Seger.
George Lucas’s coming-of-age film American Graffiti is set at the beginning of summer, 1962. It features several up-and-coming stars, from Ron Howard, to Harrison Ford, to Richard Dreyfuss. Like American Pop, it also features a great soundtrack, but it focuses on just one era of American pop culture, and is considerably more upbeat for the length of the movie. And even though it perfectly encapsulates its target era, it still manages to be relatable for younger generations as well. A group of high school graduates looking to have one last night of fun together before they all head off for college… that’s pretty much a timeless scene. American Graffiti is a great fit for the holiday, celebrating American culture, the desire to enjoy life and the start of summer.
Yeah, I know. Probably two-thirds of American movie bloggers are going to bring up this 1996 film today. But I’m not about to buck the trend. It gets a lot of talk because it really is a good science-fiction film, it’s a lot of fun, and in its own roundabout way, it also has its own statement to make about America. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of the screen time, but it’s Bill Pullman’s speech as the President Whitmore that lets us see that the film isn’t just set on July 4th for the fun of it. He gives one of the greatest inspirational speeches in recent movie history, and while I won’t repeat the whole thing here, the basic gist is pretty simple, and twofold. It acknowledges that America is both a global force and a part of the world. And it states that America will not back down from a fight. That no matter who you are, no matter how big you are, no matter how long the odds are… if you mess with us, we will take you down. And it states it in a way that makes it clear it’s not bravado or posturing, but simply part of the culture; what’s more, it does so in a way that has America standing with the rest of the world in the same attitude. It’s at least partly for that reason that a film that utilizes an American holiday earned nearly twice as much outside the U.S. as it did inside.
There are several films that would make good choices for covering the historical aspect of the day, but nobody wants to watch a dreary drama today. So for my fourth pick, I’m going with something a little lighter, the film version of the musical 1776. Released just a few years before America’s Bicentennial, 1776 is a musical comedy, showing the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but doing so in a way that pokes a little fun at the founding fathers. The seriousness of what they’re doing is acknowledged, but it’s handled in a way that reminds us that they were human too, with all their foibles, and the arguments and occasional bits of lunacy that come up serve to make a fairly serious event a lot more fun to watch. And despite the joking and bursting out into song, it still manages to be reasonably true to the actual history. If you’re looking to celebrate your Independence Day with a film about the original Independence Day, this is one of the better choices.
So there you have it. Four great films for the Fourth of July. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and these may not even be the best four films for the holiday. They’re just the four that came to mind right now. What do you think? Are these the four you would pick, or is there something else you would put in instead? Chime in, and even if I don’t check in today, I’ll be sure to get back to you tomorrow.
Happy Independence Day!