Ignite the Light: How Katy Perrys Firework Brings Scenes From Three Very Different Movies to Life by Josh Bell
By Yasmina Tawil
When Katy Perrys Firework begins playing for the first time in Jacques Audiards Rust and Bone, its not especially noticeable. The song is part of the background music at Marineland, the aquatic park where Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works as an orca trainer, one of several upbeat pop songs that serve to get the crowd excited during the routine animal performances in the outdoor amphitheater. Its only after the minute-long section of the song has ended, and the soundtrack has shifted to tense orchestral music, that it becomes clear how indelibly Firework will be seared into Stephanies psyche, probably for the rest of her life.
The presence of contemporary pop songs like Firework, especially in mainstream Hollywood movies, is usually unremarkable and often little more than an afterthought, with songs just as likely chosen for marketing purposes as for artistic ones. But filmmakers with strong visions can harness the undeniable power of a huge pop hit like Firework and transform it into an essential storytelling tool, as Audiard does in Rust and Bone and as the directors of the far more multiplex-friendly movies The Interview and Madagascar 3: Europes Most Wanted do as well. It may be a coincidence that the filmmakers behind all three movies chose Firework for the most pivotal and memorable moments in their films, but its no coincidence that Perrys empowerment anthem has the ability to speak to artists with very different creative goals.
Written by Perry along with Ester Dean, StarGate, and Sandy Vee and taken from Perrys 2010 album Teenage Dream, Firework is one of Perrys biggest hits, and it seems tailor-made for the movies, with its soaring earworm chorus and its inspirational lyrics that are specific enough to stick in your mind (the singular use of firework is especially uncommon) but generic enough to apply to almost any situation involving believing in yourself and pursuing your dreams. Its not necessarily a great song, but its the right song for what each of these films is aiming to convey at a particular moment.
The second time that Firework surfaces in Rust and Bone, about 50 minutes after the first, its significance is clear: Stephanie is now in a wheelchair, following an accident that left her legs severed below the knee. The choreographed performance between orcas and trainers, set to Firework, was the last thing she experienced before her terrible injury, and the song is now a symbol of the life shes lost and has struggled to rebuild. Much of that rebuilding has come from her burgeoning relationship with Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), an underground mixed martial-arts fighter and itinerant laborer who has shown her more compassion and patience than anyone else in her life. The two have just had sex for the first time, in a scene that is sweet and passionate and a little awkward, and Ali has left Stephanies apartment with a casual farewell that doesnt match her clearly stronger feelings of attachment.
Vulnerable yet undaunted, Stephanie sits on her balcony, Audiards camera first capturing her from behind. As Audiard cuts to a side view of Stephanie, she slowly starts miming the hand motions from her aquatic performance, first in silence and then as Firework gradually fades in on the soundtrack. As it does in most instances in all three of these movies, the song begins here with the line Ignite the light and let it shine, sparking the light in Stephanies eyes as her hands are outstretched and open. The song builds to its chorus as her motions become more confident, forceful. Her expression goes from wistful to triumphant, her hands poised and powerful, pumping to the beat. As the song continues to play, Audiard cuts to Stephanie, using a cane and her new prosthetic legs, walking for the first time into the empty amphitheater where she used to perform. Shes finally found the inner strength to confront her trauma, and while a lot of that came from Ali, plenty of it came from Katy Perry, too.
Theres a surprising amount of emotional power to the use of Firework in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldbergs The Interview as well, even if it first appears as the target of a somewhat obvious joke. Vain talk show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his more pragmatic producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) have traveled to North Korea to interview dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), an apparent superfan of Daves vapid celebrity-interview show. Theyve also been tasked by a CIA agent (Lizzy Caplan) with secretly assassinating Kim, although Dave has started to bond with the lonely despot, who has a secret fondness for cheesy American culture.