Welcome to Score Keeping, a feature where I l dive into overlooked and highly praised songs, scores and soundtracks that accompany great films.
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Let’s go back. The year is 1975 and relatively unknown actor Sylvester Stallone has just finished writing the first draft of Rocky in three days. He was inspired by the lives of Joe Frazier and Rocky Marciano. However, the real impetus came from viewing a heavyweight title fight between Muhammad “the World’s Greatest” Ali and Chuck Wepner, a Jersey-strong low-level prizefighter and liquor salesman who against all odds went 15 rounds with the champ. It’s a great story, one that Stallone realized that the people could connect to on a visceral level. He spiced it up. The lead character’s not just a low-level fighter, he’s a bum (or a ham and egger as Rocky himself says), fighting easy but sloppy matches for scraps. The fight is no longer just a heavyweight title bout but a publicity stunt on the 4th of July in Philadelphia under the guise of giving a hometown boy a shot in the land of opportunity.
Flash forward to 1976 and the movie is in post-production. Typically this is about the time directors and producers bring in the composer to bat clean-up (especially if it’s a low budget movie like Rocky was). Bill Conti wasn’t director John G. Avildsen’s first choice (that honor belongs to Rocky‘s lead actress Talia Shire’s first husband David Shire), but in the end he turned out to be the best one. Conti had only scored for a couple of micro budget films (including an unused score from a film called W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, a film directed by Avildsen). When he got called in to start laying ideas over pre-edited footage he found out that Avildsen had been using Beethoven as the temp tracks for the action on screen, more specifically Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (also known in Italian as Sinfonia Eroica, Heroic Symphony).
Avildsen said that he chose this music because he envisioned Rocky as a fairy tale, so the music had to reflect the Cinderella-esque working class hero’s journey. While Conti never directly pulled from Beethoven he agreed that the music should have the same quality. Conti was a big fan of the sound of the epics of the ’50s and ’60s and wanted that mythic quality for his own score. As he says, “In the 1950s and ’60s the composers I grew up listening to and who made the greatest impression on me where Miklós Rózsa and the soundtracks to his big brass-led Roman picture scores…so I always wanted to write the loud stuff.”
However, there was one more element that was important to Conti, an element that sets Rocky apart from every other sports movie score at the time. It was his insistence that he keep the music grounded in the sounds of the Philadelphia streets. He wanted the bombast and regalia of a gladiator but he wanted it to have the quality of the people’s gladiator. Rocky by all accounts is a man of the people. Everyone knows his name and can’t help but say “hi” and cheer the big lovable lump on. So Conti infused the score with an in-the-pocket R&B groove. It gave the music a distinct Ben-Hur-by-way-of-the-Bee-Gees sound. This fusion of heroic fantasy and man of the people lead to what can only be described as the most inspirational theme music (and scene) ever committed to celluloid.
In the nihilistic ’70s if Star Wars was the sound of rebellion, and The Godfather the sound of the dark underbelly of the American dream, then Rocky was the sound of a second chance and pavement-pounding perseverance. What’s fascinating about the “Gonna Fly Now” creation is how on the fly the process was. Conti talks about its conception as “a patchwork quilt of bits and pieces that became the song.” Avildsen played the iconic training montage for Conti only 30 seconds at a time, so Conti would have to come up with new moods and sounds to match the chunks he was seeing. It’s why “Gonna Fly Now” moves through so many sections in its short 2 minute and 43 second runtime. You get the downtrodden motifs of Rocky walking the streets introduced in “Philadelphia Morning,” now flipped to be the sounds of triumph, combined with brief fanfare of the opening title roll.
But where you hear the best synthesis of the grooves of the ’70s and the sounds of sword and sandals epics comes from the track “Going the Distance” which comes at the climatic Creed fight near the end of the movie. The music is the perfect audio illustration of a titan of the ring going against a man who refuses to stay down or even go down. You can hear the direct influence of Miklós Rózsa so much clearer here.
“Gonna Fly Now” and the Rocky score as a whole were smash hits even outside of the success of the movie. “Gonna Fly Now” went gold as a single and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song while the entire score was nominated for a Golden Globe. The song was covered at least three times at the height of its popularity including a cover by famous jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson (who was known for his opulent octave work and his beefed arrangements of existing jazz, pop, and R&B hits). Ferguson scored a platinum record and Grammy win for his cover of “Gonna Fly Now” which incidentally charted at #40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 the same time as Conti’s original arrangement peaked at #1.
Conti’s score effectively changed how sports movies sounded for much of what came after Rocky. Scrappy underdogs all got themes worthy of a stadium. From the ’80s anthem of The Karate Kid’s “You’re the Best” (which Conti also co-wrote and did the score for) to Quad City DJ’s jock jam theme song to the film Space Jam (not to mention the unofficial theme song “I Believe I Can Fly” having the same theme of ascending through perseverance as “Gonna Fly Now”). The thing is, none of these and other movies scores and soundtracks ever quite reached the highs and balance of mythic figure and common people that Conti’s score for Rocky does. It’s that alchemic combination that keeps this music in the zeitgeist for so long. It’s the reason that every time you see a big staircase you can’t help but hum that opening fanfare and imagine yourself running up it and pumping your arms in adulation. It’s the reason Conti’s score and music has gone the distance.
This post was done in conjunction with Indiana University Cinema’s August 10-12 International Arthouse screening of Chuck, the real life story that inspired the film Rocky, starring Liev Schreiber as the title character.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.