CREED – Ludwig Göransson
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The seventh film in the iconic Rocky series of boxing-themed movies, Creed continues the story of Philly pugilist Rocky Balboa, who fought his way from nothing to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. Nine years after the events of the last film, Rocky is still in Philadelphia, running the restaurant named after his late wife Adrian, and generally staying out of the limelight. Things change when he is approached by a young fighter from Los Angeles named Adonis ‘Donny’ Johnson, who is actually the long-estranged son of Rocky’s former rival and great friend Apollo Creed, who had been killed in the ring thirty years previously (during Rocky IV). Rocky reluctantly agrees to train Adonis, and the two develop a father-son bond; simultaneously, Adonis begins a relationship with an aspiring singer-songwriter named Bianca. However, things change on several fronts when Adonis is challenged by the British world light heavyweight champion Ricky Conlan, and when Rocky develops health problems and is forced to confront his own mortality.
Creed is directed by Ryan Coogler, and stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, and real-life boxers Tony Bellew and Gabriel Rosado as Adonis’s main opponents. It’s also, in my opinion, the best Rocky film since the original Rocky – an unexpectedly emotional, well-written and well-acted film that keeps the integrity of the Rocky franchise intact, but updates and revitalizes it for contemporary audiences by providing an exciting new protagonist. There has been genuine and well-deserved Academy Awards buzz for Stallone in particular, whose supporting performance is effective and at times surprisingly moving, but credit should be given to everyone involved in the production for crafting an excellent piece of drama that deftly mixes sports with inter-personal relationships.
This acclaim also extends to composer Ludwig Göransson, who in scoring Creed becomes the third person to score a Rocky movie after Vince Di Cola and the legendary Bill Conti. Swedish-born Göransson relocated to the United States in 2008 and worked with director Coogler on his critically acclaimed debut film Fruitvale Station, but has cut his teeth mainly in comedy, writing scores for successful TV shows such as Community and New Girl, and working with composer Theodore Shapiro on films like Tropic Thunder and We’re the Millers. This filmography doesn’t really inspire great confidence in Göransson’s ability to score a film like Creed, but any fears or preconceptions one may have had about his assignment will be put to rest by the quality of this score. Creed is a wonderful, powerful orchestral score, built around a rousing central anthem worthy of Conti himself, and which is given a contemporary kick by some appropriate and well-crafted R&B and hip-hop rhythms.
Göransson’s main theme is the theme for Adonis Creed himself, and it’s a big theme in every sense of the word: it has Bill Conti’s fingerprints all over it in terms of its feel, and the way it is used to convey all the different emotions throughout the course of the film, but the melody and application are all Göransson’s. Creed’s theme appears at the end of the understated and ambient opening, “Juvy,” on a solo piano, but makes its first significant statement during the second cue, “Adonis.” Initially heard on a solo trumpet accompanied by an electric guitar tone and rhythmic synth pulses, it transfers to bass flute, and then back to the solo piano, before smashing into fully-orchestral life just after the 2:00 mark. This one cue really highlights what a versatile theme it is: it has the capacity to convey a great deal of emotional weight, both introspective and overt, and depending on its tempo and instrumentation can be reflective, playful, or euphoric, as the film dictates. Very few films these days have themes as front-and-center as Creed does, and even fewer have this capacity for emotional range, and it is to the credit of both Göransson and director Coogler that they were able to achieve this on this film.
There are several excellent versions of the Creed theme which emerge as the score progresses. In cues like “First Date,” “Moving in with Rocky,” and “Caught in the Shadow,” the theme transfers to electric guitars and a chorus of humming voices, and occasionally segues into a lovely piano-based romance melody; in doing so, this version becomes a recurring thematic idea for Adonis’s hesitant courtship with Bianca. Elsewhere, “Front Street Gym” and the second half of “I Got You” turn the theme into an inspirational fanfare for the full orchestra, while “Boxing Shorts” has a sense of emotional pathos and catharsis through its warm brasses and reflective piano writing. Some of the R&B and hip-hop elements in these cues are creative and unusual, but may take some listeners by surprise with their unconventionality; the highly processed vocal effects in “Moving in with Rocky” and “Front Street Gym,” for example, are clearly inspired by the gritty, urban sounds of contemporary America and the music that environment inspires, and as such feel appropriate.
The actual fight sequences are grittier; “The Sporino Fight” is a masterful exercise in tension-building, with layer upon layer of percussion loops and beats, synth ambiences, and live drum licks, combining to underscore the heart-stopping adrenaline of Adonis’s first pro bout. Don Davis-esque brass textures, and the gradual inclusion of more and more sections of the orchestra, allow the eventual glorious emergence of the Creed theme to feel well-earned. The subsequent “Conlan Fight” is orchestrated similarly, but has a more powerful and stirring sentiment, with several prominent performances of Creed’s theme as a fanfare, resulting in a cue that matches the intensity and energy of the fight choreography – which is brilliant and brutal – and packs a mighty emotional punch.
Bill Conti’s original Rocky themes make several appearances, usually as a subtle reference or allusion to Rocky’s past, but they are welcome reminders of the franchise’s musical heritage, and will give long-time listeners and fans of Conti’s music a pleasing sense of nostalgia. The opening notes of “Gonna Fly Now” come in at the very end of “First Date,” and Conti’s iconic synth stylings make a guest appearance in “Front Street Gym,” while “Rocky is Sick” features a lovely, heartfelt rendition of the Rocky theme on a piano, which combines beautifully with the most sentimental performance of the Creed theme, speaking to their growing relationship. The contrapuntal performances of the two themes in this latter cue are very important, as they clearly show how both themes are harmonically and tonally linked – as the two characters are inexplicably linked – but also how they head off in different directions, musically, reflecting the different paths of the two fighters.
The magnificent “If I Fight, You Fight [Training Montage]“ is one of the score’s best cues, as it is here that Göransson finally goes full-Conti, taking his Creed theme one step further by furnishing it with original lyrics – “fighting hard, climbing strong, fighting harder” – making it the spiritual successor to “Gonna Fly Now”. However, everything pales in comparison to the astonishing “You’re a Creed,” which begins with a stirring performance of the Rocky fanfare, moves into a wonderful refrain of Conti’s ‘Going the Distance’ theme, updated with hip-hop beats, and finishes with a magnificent setting of the Creed theme arranged contrapuntally against “Gonna Fly Now.” I don’t mind admitting that this sequence got me a little choked up when I first heard it in the context of the film. The use of the themes for both boxers is clearly intended to convey a sense of triumph and redemption in both of them simultaneously – both have obstacles to overcome, different fights to win – and intelligently allows the audience to feel that same sense of exhilaration.
Then, after a sentimental statement of “Gonna Fly Now” for piano and harp in “You Can See the Whole Town from Here,” Göransson closes his score with the “End Credits” and the “Creed Suite.” Both of these cues reprise the main theme in various different guises, but also make use of some of the strongest and most experimental R&D and hip-hop arrangements in the score, as well as choral and vocal effects, before climaxing with rousing, anthemic grandeur.
Also included on the soundtrack are instrumental interludes from “Grip,” “Breathe,” and “Shed You,” three original songs which are supposed to be the songs Adonis’s girlfriend Bianca writes and performs on-screen. Göransson wrote them in collaboration with actress Tessa Thompson and several artists signed to Jay-Z’s record label Roc Nation, for whom Göransson is a composer-in-residence. These tracks are the most challenging passages on the album, a sort of blend of hip-hop and progressive electronica which highlight unusual processed vocal effects, urban beats, and a much more underground, experimental feel. They stand at odds with the rest of the score, and many people will find them to be indescribably weird – I know I did when I first heard them – but they have actually come to grow on me over time, and they certainly highlight the songwriting side of Göransson’s personality. For those who don’t know, Göransson is an equally successful songwriter and producer, who releases his own songs under the name Ludovin, and has worked with bands such as Childish Gambino and HAIM.
Less welcome are the accursed dialogue snippets, which play over several tracks: “Meeting Rocky,” “Front Street Gym,” “I Got You,” “If I Fight, You Fight [Training Montage],” “Conlan Fight,” and the “Creed Suite.” It has been several years since a soundtrack has layered dialogue over the score in such an egregious way, and I thought we had moved past this abomination. If I want to listen to dialogue from the film, I’ll watch the film. Don’t obscure the score. If I still gave out star ratings, this atrocity would have knocked at least half a star off the final score.
This one blemish aside, Creed remains one of the most surprisingly engaging, creative, and rousing scores of 2015. The Adonis Creed theme is one of the most memorable of the year, and while it’s unlikely to go on to achieve the same success that “Gonna Fly Now” had back in 1976, the in-movie impact of the music is directly comparable, and almost as successful. Rocky was the film that essentially launched Bill Conti’s career, and if Creed proves even to be half as popular with critics and audiences, I can easily see the same thing happening to Ludwig Göransson; if the stars align in a certain way, I could even see this sneaking in as an Oscar nominee next year.
Buy the Creed soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Juvy (2:19)
- Adonis (2:27)
- Meeting Rocky (4:02)
- Conlan [Redemption] (1:28)
- Grip [Interlude] (written by Ludwig Göransson, Sam Dew, and Tessa Thompson) (2:05)
- First Date (2:30)
- Moving in with Rocky (1:20)
- Breathe [Interlude] (written by Ludwig Göransson and Tessa Thompson) (2:27)
- Front Street Gym (3:21)
- The Sporino Fight (4:34)
- Shed You [Interlude] (written by Ludwig Göransson, Moses Sumney, and Tessa Thompson) (2:40)
- I Got You (1:02)
- Rocky is Sick (2:17)
- Caught in the Shadow (1:20)
- If I Fight, You Fight [Training Montage] (4:54)
- Boxing Shorts (1:43)
- Conlan Fight (6:37)
- You’re a Creed (4:26)
- You Can See the Whole Town from Here (2:11)
- End Credits – Creed (3:08)
- Creed Suite (2:36)
Running Time: 59 minutes 37 seconds
Watertower Music (2015)
Music composed by Ludwig Göransson. Conducted by Pete Anthony. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian, Henri Wilkinson, Erik Arvinder and Per Gunnar Juliusson. Original Rocky themes by Bill Conti. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by Ronald Webb. Album produced by Ludwig Göransson.