Tom Hanks Leads Procession of Stars, Former Presidents and Fireworks to Close Inauguration Day

The live special featured appearances by Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Kerry Washington, Eva Longoria, Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry, among others. 

On a chilly night in Washington, D.C., Bruce Springsteen stood alone on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall with just a guitar and a microphone. The Boss had the honor of kicking off the final event of a hectic Inauguration Day, and he did so by announcing he was there to sing "Land of Hope and Dreams," a song with lyrics many hope mirror this moment in American history.

"Leave behind your sorrows," sang Springsteen. "Let this day be the last. Tomorrow there'll be sunshine, and all this darkness past. Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams. Meet me in a land of hope and dreams."

Thus began Celebrating America, a 90-minute production produced by Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss, the latter of whom also directed after helming the virtual Emmys and Democratic National Convention. It featured a slew of big-name performers and actors all in the name of celebrating the new administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Hosted by Tom Hanks, the starry program was a marked change from President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump regularly and viciously attacked Hollywood stars, especially A-listers and award winners, while courting a rabid Tinseltown fan base of his own thanks, in part, to the likes of Jon Voight, Dean Cain, Kevin Sorbo, Scott Baio, Kristy Swanson and Kid Rock.

With Trump now out of D.C. and living at his Mar-a-Lago resort, it's clear that Hollywood stars are once again welcome in the White House and, perhaps as important, eager to pull out all the stops for a Democratic administration. But Wednesday night’s show was far from an elite affair. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a traditional black-tie inaugural ball, typically a tough invite to score, was replaced by a televised program for the masses that allowed the country to celebrate as one united audience.

Celebrating America was carried live by ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, MSNBC and PBS in addition to streaming on the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s social media channels and on partner platforms including Amazon Prime Video, Microsoft Bing, NewsNOW from Fox, AT&T U-verse and DIRECTV. With Celebrating America, the PIC closed out five days of programming that included events for National Day of Service, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a moving COVID-19 tribute to the 400,000 lives lost, this morning's official inauguration ceremony, and the Tony Goldwyn-hosted virtual Parade Across America.

The purpose of Celebrating America was to “showcase the American people’s resilience, heroism, and a unified commitment to coming together as a nation to heal and rebuild,” per the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Those themes reverberated in just about every segment, from interstitials featuring everyday heroes and front-line workers to the musical anthems performed from multiple cities by a diverse range of acts and musical genres including John Legend, Bon Jovi (from Miami), Justin Timberlake with Ant Clemons (from Memphis), Yo-Yo Ma, Tyler Hubbard with Tim McGraw (from Nashville), Foo Fighters (from Seattle), Demi Lovato (from L.A.), Black Pumas (from Austin) and a medley featuring Broadway stars.

After Springsteen, Hanks, who seemed to be chilly as temperatures in D.C. hovered around 30 degrees, offered a brief introduction. Though Trump was not once mentioned by name, his legacy impacted the script. "In the last few weeks, and in the last few years, we’ve witnessed deep divisions and a troubling rancor in our land, but tonight, we ponder the United States of America, the practice of our democracy, the foundations of our republic, the integrity of our Constitution, the hope and dreams we all share for a more perfect union," said the Oscar winner. "Inauguration day is about much more than the swearing in of our next national leaders. This day is about witnessing the permanence of our American ideals."

Hanks then announced that memorable passages from previous presidents would be shared as he singled out Franklin D. Roosevelt for rallying the American people; John F. Kennedy, who inspired a new generation to serve; Ronald Reagan, who spoke of a peaceful transition of power during his farewell address that included the well-known line "shining city on a hill"; and Abraham Lincoln, who worked to unite the country after war.

The Hollywood Reporter columnist and NBA hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar recited Lincoln's words, Dolores Huerta offered up FDR's, and first female MLB general manager Kim Ng handled Reagan's speech. That left Kennedy's remarks to a young student named Brayden Harrington, 13. He made headlines last year after an encounter with Biden on the campaign trail during which Biden comforted him upon learning that they both shared the same struggle of trying to overcome a stutter. The New York Times reported tonight that Harrington is now writing a book, Brayden Speaks Up, for HarperCollins.

Other recognizable faces popped up during the everyday heroes segments, people who have received media attention or gone viral for their philanthropic efforts, or simply for doing their jobs well. There was UPS driver Anthony Gaskin, who was celebrated by a neighborhood on his Virginia route for his unwavering dedication; Maryland’s Cavanaugh Bell, 8, who made care packages for the elderly people and started a pantry with food; kindergarten teacher Mackenzie Adams of Washington’s Glenwood Elementary School, who went viral for videos of her energetic remote lessons; Sarah Fuller of Texas, the first woman to play and score in a Power Five college football team; Morgan Marsh-McGlone, 8, of Wisconsin, started a virtual lemonade stand that has raised over $50,000; star chef José Andrés, who has rallied massive meal donations through his World Central Kitchen; and New York’s Sandra Lindsay, a director of critical care at Northwell Health who became the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial.

Biden and Harris delivered remarks, separately, while standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The president appeared first and called the experience humbling, out of respect to Lincoln and the "office we now share." He reiterated remarks from earlier in the day by saying that democracy, while precious, has once again prevailed. He acknowledged the challenges facing the American people, from the pandemic to climate change, but said that he's more optimistic now than ever before.

"This is a great nation. We're a good people. And to overcome the challenges in front of us requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity. It requires us to come together in common love that defines us as Americans: Opportunity, liberty, dignity and respect. And unite against common foes: Hate, violence, disease and hopelessness," said Biden. "The question is: Are we up to it? Will we meet the moment like our forebears have? I believe we must, and I believe we will."

Harris spoke later in the program, following an introduction by football player Fuller. She said the current moment and its challenges require courage to see beyond crisis. "In many ways, this moment embodies our character as a nation. It demonstrates who we are. Even in dark times, we not only dream, we do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be. We shoot for the moon, and then we plant our flag on it. We are bold, fearless and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up,” said Harris, referencing American “aspiration” several times. “A great experiment takes great determination. The will to do the work and then the wisdom to keep refining, keep tinkering, keep perfecting. The same determination is being realized in America today.”

There's no question that the Biden-Harris administration has a tough road ahead in repairing the damage done by a divisive four years. However, they can count on former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The trio appeared together during a taped segment in which they each offered well wishes for the new administration. Again, Trump was not mentioned by name, but his impact was felt in that he famously broke from tradition by not showing up for the day's inauguration events.

Said Bush: "I think the fact that the three of us are standing here talking about a peaceful transfer of power speaks to the institutional integrity of our country. America's a generous country, people of great hearts. All three of us were lucky to be the president of this country."

"One of my fondest memories of the inauguration," offered Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president, "was the grace and generosity that President Bush showed me, and Laura Bush showed Michelle." He closed his remarks by offering their support. "Joe, I'm proud of you, and you and Kamala need to know that you've got all of us here rooting for your success, keeping you in our prayers, and we will be available in any ways that we can as citizens to help you guide our country forward. We wish you godspeed."

Other highlights of the fast-paced show included Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria; Lin-Manuel Miranda reciting "The Cure at Troy" by Seamus Heaney and finishing the last line in unison with Biden, who was spliced in at the end; a cadre of Broadway stars performing a medley of "Seasons of Love" and "Let the Sunshine In"; a mini Pass the Mic moment with DJ Cassidy that featured Ozuna and Luis Fonsi; a rousing rendition of "Lovely Day" from Demi Lovato; John Legend's soulful cover of "Feeling Good"; and Florida Georgia Line star Tyler Hubbard partnering with country superstar Tim McGraw on the original track "Undivided." The latter performance was also notable in that Hubbard and his FGL collaborator Brian Kelley are working on solo material amid rumblings of a political rift.

Then came the true show stopper. With under five minutes to go in Celebrating America, producers played the show like it was the Fourth of July by handing closing duties to global pop superstar Katy Perry. Decked out in all white, Perry performed her hit "Firework" with the Washington Monument in view. As she belted out the No. 1 hit, the D.C. sky lit up with a colorful display of fireworks.

Minutes later, with the smoke from the massive fireworks display still hanging high in the air, Hanks summed up the evening and congratulated America's highest-ranking officials one last time. "This has been a uniquely historic inauguration day. Once again, congratulations President Biden and Vice President Harris. Godspeed your efforts."