The Friday Five: Rocky XXXVII
A quintuple of KOs...
And we’re back with The Friday Five, which this time is themed around athleticism, friendship, respect, and that old pastime, punching things until they stop moving. Sadly there are no service robots, and if you understand that, you know that this is all about the “Rocky” franchise, which at this point is on its ninth installment with the unleashing of “Creed III” into cinemas today - at least in the UK. I believe it’s been out for a couple of weeks in the US. If you’re curious about the title, it’s a reference to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke (seen above behind Sonny Bono) in the 1982 comedy “Airplane II": The Sequel.”
Luckily for film music fans, the series has enjoyed great wealth when it comes to its music. Bill Conti kicked the whole thing off in 1976 with that great theme ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ and he continued scoring the films all the way to 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” with the exception of 1985’s “Rocky IV,” which had a synthesiser score by Vince DiCola. After that, it was down to Ludwig Göransson to look after the “Creed” continuation films, and he brought a contemporary edge to the orchestral score in the same way that Conti had previously. This success led him to Oscar glory with the Marvel picture “Black Panther,” as well as the smash hit Disney+ series “The Mandalorian,” set in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” universe - “Creed III,” which I haven’t seen yet, is scored by Joseph Shirley, who collaborated with Göransson on “The Mandalorian” and the spin-off show “The Book of Boba Fett.”
So shall we take a look at five of the best musical moments from the “Rocky” series? Let’s get montaging.
5. Rocky III
One of the signature moments in a “Rocky” film is the training montage, which went from Rocky running through the Philly streets to climb those momentous steps to trampling through the Siberian snow in the hostile environment of Soviet Russia. 1982’s “Rocky III” had its sequence take place in L.A. at Apollo Creed’s former gym, with Creed putting our hero through his ultimate paces to a new and funkier rendition of ‘Gonna Fly Now.’ Thrilling.
4. Rocky Balboa
It’s easy to forget how well-received “Rocky Balboa” was, especially after the painful “Rocky V.” What drew the plaudits was the way it returned to the original picture, which was of course a boxing movie but underneath was really a story about people. “Rocky Balboa” brought the character back to the aftermath of his life to look back, and said something about the dangers of nostalgia as well as the importance of remembrance. One story element introduced was the pre-film death of Rocky’s great love Adrian (wonderfully portrayed by Talia Shire) and this was covered rather sweetly with Rocky looking back at their relationship before talking to her at her grave. Conti wrote a beautifully melancholic cue for a scene where Rocky and Paulie visit their old stomping ground, including the pet shop she worked at and Mick’s gym. Sadly the film didn’t get a soundtrack album, but Conti’s music still works amazingly in the film, a wonderful and wistful tribute to a sadly-missed character - and actress.
Ryan Coogler’s excellent “Creed” was about passing the torch, with a cancer-stricken Rocky trying to help Adonis, Apollo Creed’s son, capture the brilliance of his father as well as becoming his own person, and this was spectacularly done in the training montage, where Adonis attends to Rocky’s health before going out on his own on those same Philadelphia streets. Ludwig Göransson opens the scene with Conti’s classic fanfare, but over time it grows and segues into Adonis’ own theme, which has the same grandeur and determination of Conti’s, but with an update in contemporary arrangement and writing through hip-hop. The montage has an interlude with rapper Meek Mill spitting rhymes over a couple of verses before ending with a big choral explosion as Adonis reaches his version of the top of the steps.
2. Rocky II
None of this “one year later” stuff; “Rocky II” begins directly after the end of the first film, with the credits showing Rocky being taken to hospital in an ambulance. Conti uses the wonderfully atmospheric shots of the vehicle driving through Philly at night to introduce the main theme for the film, called ‘Redemption.’ It feels like Rocky must have felt, with a sense of lethargy but also calmness - after all, the fight is over. But it’s also gritty with its low pianos, and it captures Balboa’s determination, and eventually, his spirit as Conti carefully interpolates the ‘Gonna Fly Now’ melody. Why more filmmakers don’t make title sequences like this anymore is a mystery to me.
Of course, there’s no other choice. “Rocky” was a love story that just happened to be set in the world of boxing, so when the bell sounds to say that Rocky has gone the distance and proved everyone wrong, Conti scores the huge rush of emotion that leaps from him, as well as the overwhelming crush of the crowd. Indeed, the music almost overwhelms us, matching the pair of Rocky and Adrian as they fight through the masses to reconnect with each other, ending on the triumphant Rocky fanfare as one of cinema’s greatest love stories closes.
Bonus: Rocky IV
Vince DiCola’s electronic score for Rocky’s Russian ramble has many excellent moments, but not enough to fit in today. However, the film also has about fifteen montages, and one of the best - where it recaps previous events in the series as Rocky cruises around in his Lamborghini - isn’t scored; instead, it has a needledrop of Robert Tepper’s ‘No Easy Way Out,’ which was handpicked by Sylvester Stallone for the film. It works like gangbusters, and Tepper would be rewarded with another job for the actor, with his track ‘Angel of the City’ appearing in Stallone’s subsequent film, “Cobra” (1986).
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