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Something Just Broke: Presidential assassinations in pop culture

There are few events able to change the course of the world like the assassination of an American President.

In particular, the killing of John F. Kennedy, the last of four Presidents to be murdered while in office, shocked and moved the world. Not only was Kennedy killed in front of a crowd of thousands, but gory and confronting video footage of the fatal shots has been seen around the world, and has etched itself firmly into our memories.

Legendary musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim took the assassins — both successful and unsuccessful — of U.S. presidents as his inspiration for his 1990 musical, Assassins. The musical depicts the killers in a kind of carnival game-styled musical revue, but one song, “Something Just Broke” shows regular citizens reacting the news of a president’s death.

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre will open its new production of Assassins next week, directed by Dean Bryant and starring David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth.

The subject was initially considered quite controversial for musical theatre treatment — especially considering Kennedy had died just two and a half decades before its premiere — but Sondheim certainly wasn’t the first to tackle the assassination of a president in pop culture.

Here are some of the other notable films, songs and TV series that have responded to or drawn inspiration from Presidential assassinations.


Stephen King’s 2011 novel 11/22/63 follows a time traveller who attempts to stop JFK’s assassination. It was adapted into a TV series last year, starring James Franco. The novel and TV series imagine what the world might be today if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated.

Batman and Abe Lincoln vs John Wilkes Booth

If only Batman had been at Ford’s Theatre on April 14 1865. In the 2011 episode of animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the caped crusader teams up with Abraham Lincoln to fight against a cyborg version of his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.


Batman: The Brave and the Bold wasn’t the first animated series to give John Wilkes Booth a cyborg makeover.


Family Guy made its own suggestion as to Booth’s motives…


Lana Del Rey took on the roles of both Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy in her 2012 music video for National Anthem. The video features reenactments of the Kennedy home videos with ASAP Rocky as JFK, as well as a reenactment of the assassination.

According to the music video’s director, Anthony Mandler, the Kennedy story was chosen to explore a “loss of innocence“.

Marilyn Manson’s Coma White

Theatrical shock rocker Marilyn Manson’s take on the JFK assassination was much more tame than might have been expected. In the 199 video for Coma White, Manson stepped into the role of the fallen President, with his then-fiancee Rose McGowan as Jacqueline Kennedy.

But the music video still generated controversy as both the Columbine High School Massacre and John F. Kennedy Jr plane crash occurred in the months prior to its release.

Manson said: “My statement was always intended to make people think of how they view and sometimes participate in these events.” He said the video “is in no way a mockery. In fact, it is a tribute to men like Jesus Christ and JFK who have died at the hands of mankind’s unquenchable thirst for violence.”


The third season of period TV drama Mad Men was set in 1963, making it almost impossible for the show’s writers to ignore the impact those events would have had on the characters. The episode “The Grown-Ups” explores the country’s reaction to the assassination.


In the 13th season of American Dad, CIA Agent Stan Smith brings James Garfield back to life to teach his daughter Hayley about history. But when Garfield escapes, Hayley creates a clone of Garfield’s assassin Charles J Guiteau, and uses him to track down the president like a bloodhound.


The Kennedys is a 2011 Canadian-American TV miniseries which chronicled the lives of the Kennedy family over several years. It was initially commissioned by the History Channel in Canada, but was dropped because it was apparently full of factual inaccuracies. But it still became quite popular with audiences and received four Emmy nominations.


Natalie Portman received strong critical praise and an Academy Award nomination for her performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in last year’s film Jackie, set in the days after her husband’s assassination.


Peter Landesman’s 2013 film Parkland tells the stories of a number of people surrounding the JFK assassination, who unexpectedly found themselves dealing with the murder of a president. It follows those inside the Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead, Dallas’s chief of the Secret Service, a cameraman who captured the shooting, and the brother of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.


In 1991, Oliver Stone released a milestone film about the events leading to the JFK assassination. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and was a huge box office success.

But Stone faced criticism for taking liberties with historical fact and seeming to promote some rather unusual conspiracy theories.


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