ROCKY – Bill Conti


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Sylvester Stallone was enduring hard times in 1975. Despite having appeared in a few movies – including The Lords of Flatbush, Farewell My Lovely, and Death Race 2000 – he had only $100 in the bank, and was seeking to sell his dog Butkus because he could not afford to feed it. Ending up on the street was a looming possibility, which focused his resolve to engineer the big career break he needed. Seeking inspiration, Stallone found it in a famous match between heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and underdog no-hoper Chuck Wepner, who somehow managed to take the legendary Ali to fifteen rounds. Over three nights Stallone wrote a quintessential American rags-to-riches story about a down-and-out boxer named Rocky Balboa. This is a classic underdog narrative, where we bear witness to a determined man, who through perseverance, guile and sheer force of will, overcomes all obstacles to achieve greatness. Entwined within the narrative is a surprisingly tender love story, which served to endear Rocky to audiences as a relatable and fallible hero, one of the common folk whose story informs us that anything is possible. United Artist producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler loved the script and bought the film rights, with Stallone leveraging its sale with the stipulation that he would star. Studio executives baulked, but when Stallone refused to blink, they acquiesced, but with a severely reduced budget of $1 million. John G. Avildsen was tasked with directing the film.

Supporting Stallone in the titular role would be Talia Shire as Adrianna “Adrian” Pennino, Burt Young as Paulie Pennino, Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, and Burgess Meredith as Mickey Goldmill. The movie was filmed on a shoestring budget in just 28 days, and exceeded its budget by $100,000 dollars, forcing both producers to take out second mortgages on their homes! Little did they know that their expectations would be met beyond their wildest imagination. The film was a stunning commercial success earning more that 225 times its production cost of $1.1 million, which led to an amazing franchise of six films. It was also acknowledged as a critical success, earning ten Academy Award nominations, winning three including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing. In 2006 the American Film Institute ranked it #4 on its list of the 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.

David Shire was originally offered the assignment of scoring the film, but had to decline due to prior commitments. Since newcomer Bill Conti had worked on Avildsen’s prior film W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, he was familiar, and more importantly, inexpensive. He was brought in to score the film with a minuscule budget of $25,000, which would pay his salary, hiring musicians, rent for the recording studio and even purchase of the recording tape! Well, it was all made good as this iconic score catapulted Conti to starry heights, launching an incredible career from which he never turned back.

Conti chose to support the film’s narrative with four themes, contemporaneous source songs, and of course a pop/rock/disco vibe. First, and foremost he realized that this rags to riches tale needed an inspiring anthem for Rocky. As such, he teamed with lyricists Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins and crafted a song for the ages. “Gonna Fly Now” is undeniably one of the most iconic songs in cinematic history, a song ingrained into the American collective psyche, instantly recognizable to this day when heard. The song was a pop sensation, making the Top 30 in Billboard Hot 100 chart of 1977. The American Film Institute ranked it #58 on its list of the 100 Best Movie Songs of All Time. “Gonna Fly Now” thus serves as Rocky’s Theme, which underpins our hero’s aspirations, and is pervasive throughout the film. It is proudly and unabashedly confident in its inspiring major modal declarations, empowered by a rousing and resounding horn fanfare, informing all that Rocky has arrived, will not be denied, and is unstoppable. Yet during intimate moments, Conti strips out its bravado for a more tender expression.

Two additional themes are linked to Rocky – the Struggle and Victory themes. The Victory Theme offers as its name suggests an anthem of victory. Its robust and inspiring fanfare informs us, rouses us and propels Rocky’s quest. The Struggle Theme speaks to Rocky’s pain, sacrifice, perseverance against doubt, and through adversity. It provides the necessary juxtaposition to the Rocky and Victory Themes, which improves the effectiveness and emotive power of the score. Its minor modal articulation is purposeful, driven ever forward by determined horn fare and strings enfatico. Lastly, we have the tender Love Theme, which provides a duality of expression. It overtly speaks of Rocky and Adrian’s love, but it also serves in its gentility to soften and humanize Rocky, revealing his vulnerability. Lastly, the infusion of energetic rock, with the fine pop vocals of DeEtta Little and Nelson Pigford, provided the necessary contemporaneous sound, which grounded this urban tale, making Rocky relatable to the common folk as one of them. The review will use an alternative cue order as the album is not sequenced to the film.

A brief statement of Rocky’s Fanfare, which is not on the album, opens the film and supports the film’s title flow across the screen. It dissipates as we, descend into an unscored scene where we see a hapless Rocky being pummeled in the boxing ring, and harangued by the crowd. Rocky manages to win the bout and the credits roll as he walks home. In “Take You Back” he comes across a small crowd of people hanging out, keeping warm by a trash can fire. They know Rocky, and offer him a drink, as he is one of them. Conti supports the scene with a funky urban vibe, which features four of the guys singing an a capella rendering of the song “Take You Back” by Frank Stallone. “First Date” reveals Adrian finally accepting Rocky’s repeated offers to go out on a date. She is shy, hesitant and Conti offers the Love Theme tenderly on piano delicato from her perspective. Later she succumbs to his charm and accepts his invitation to join him in his apartment. Rocky turns on the radio and the song “You Take My Heart Away” plays as source music carried magically by DeEtta Little and Nelson Pigford heartfelt vocals. A reprise of the Love Theme later joins the song as he attempts to seduce a very reticent Adrian.

In “Philadelphia Morning”, Rocky gets up on a cold December morning and begins his training for the fight with Apollo Creed. Rocky is out of shape, not conditioned, and does not yet believe in his chances. Conti speaks to this scene with plaintive horns and a beleaguered Rocky’s Theme carried as melancholia by piano, as we see him struggling on his run and scaling of the imposing city hall steps. “Butkus” reveals Rocky picking up Adrian’s dog Butkus (his in real life) to accompany him on a training run. Conti supports their comic run through Philadelphia streets with a funky and soulful instrumental rendering of Rocky’s Theme. “Gonna Fly Now” is a magnificent score highlight, which features a rousing, full rendering of the Rocky Anthem. We have a training montage of a confident Rocky running through Philadelphia streets and working out hard in the gym. Conti inspires us with a perfect synergy of empowerment by orchestra, rock guitar and vocals, which unabashedly carry Rocky higher and higher, up the City Hall steps, where he stands fists raised in triumph as he looks upon his home town. Conti’s genius is revealed, as he in a masterstroke captures the emotional core of the film with one of the finest set pieces in cinematic history.

In “Alone In The Ring” Rocky visits the boxing arena the night before the fight. The magnitude of what awaits clearly weighs heavily upon him and Conti supports his moment of reflection with a contemplative rendering of Rocky’s Theme by solo piano. He returns home and opens up to Adrian that he is a nobody, that he cannot do it, and that he is not up to the task. She consoles him and we see in his eyes his resolve return. In “Marine’s Hymn/Yankee Doodle Dandy” Apollo Creed channels campy Americana as he enters in grand over the top fashion, dressed in patriotic ware, and supported by the Marine Hymn and Yankee Doodle Dandy. He is boisterous, full of himself and supremely confident! “Fanfare For Rocky” supports the introduction of the two fighters. Regretfully, the piece was truncated with only the opening fanfare statement making the film. Conti would have made Korngold proud with this horn lover’s dream come true! Rocky’s Theme expressed proudly as heraldic fanfare worthy of our hero. Interplay with the Struggle Theme enriches the cue and elevates it to one of the finest in the score. Sad that it never made it to the film/

As the fight begins it is unscored, but ushers in a wonderful score highlight. As the second round concludes in “Going The Distance” Rocky has unleashed a salvo that has stunned Apollo. The cue supports several rounds where we see Rocky being pummeled. The Struggle Theme supports his trial and the withering beating being inflicted by Apollo. At 1:31 a crushing blow knocks him down and the Victory Theme rises up as he struggles valiantly to regain his footing, ignoring Mickey’s commands to stay down, for he is determined to carry on. He rights himself and defiantly taunts Apollo, who moves in for the kill. Rocky dodges Apollo’s punches and unleashes several punches to the torso, which appear to break some of Apollo’s ribs. As the two men move to their corners we close darkly with the Struggle Theme. In “The Final Bell” we have a rousing score highlight. Rocky ends the 15th round by pummeling Apollo, who is against the ropes, ready to fall, but saved by the bell. We open tentatively with Rocky’s Theme on piano as the bell rings, and Rocky contemplates what he has accomplished. As the realization sets in, Conti unleashes a celebratory rendering of the Victory Theme, which soars gloriously in unabashed triumph as Rocky cries out for Adrian who joins him in the ring and confesses her love. “Rocky’s Reward” offers the End Credits, which Conti supports with an eloquent classical concert rendering of the Struggle Theme born by a string ensemble. The full rendering of the theme is gorgeous, but unexpected, as one would expect some reference of the Rocky and Victory Themes.

This release from Capital Records offers the score in re-mastered 24 Bit digital sound, which is excellent and provides an exceptional listening experience. Rocky was Conti’s breakout score, which catalyzed the launch of his magnificent career. Integral to the success of this score was the Rocky anthem, ”Gonna Fly Now”, which s undeniably one of the most iconic songs in cinematic history, a song so ingrained into the American collective psyche, as to be instantly recognizable to this day when heard. In a masterstroke Conti captured the emotional core of the film, a quintessential American rags to riches story by a man who would seem to be a loser on a dead end path. The score is rounded out by three additional fine themes that are attuned to different facets of Rocky’s life; struggle, victory, and love. The infusion of a contemporaneous rock vibe as well as pop songs with the fine vocals of DeEtta Little and Nelson Pigford firmly grounded this film in 1970s urban culture. This really is an iconic score, one of the finest of the Silver Age. Conti brought Rocky to life, inspired us, and affirmed that an average Joe, down on his luck, can find love, and achieve his dreams. I highly recommend you acquire this inspiring masterwork for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have attached a link to the iconic “Gonna Fly Now” Theme:

Buy the Rocky soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky) (written by Bill Conti, Carol Connors, and Ayn Robbins, performed by DeEtta Little and Nelson Pigford) (2:48)
  • Philadelphia Morning (2:22)
  • Going the Distance (2:39)
  • Reflections (3:19)
  • Marines’ Hymn/Yankee Doodle (written by Jacques Offenbach/traditional) (1:45)
  • Take You Back (Street Corner Song from Rocky) (written by Frank Stallone, performed by Valentine) (1:49)
  • First Date (1:53)
  • You Take My Heart Away (written and performed by DeEtta Little) (4:46)
  • Fanfare for Rocky (2:35)
  • Butkus (2:12)
  • Alone in the Ring (1:10)
  • The Final Bell (1:55)
  • Rocky’s Reward (2:02)

Running Time: 31 minutes 15 seconds

Capitol Records/EMI 09463-66400-2-0 (1976/2006)

Music composed and conducted by Bill Conti. Orchestrations by Bill Conti. Recorded and mixed by Ami Hadani. Edited by Joseph Tuley Jr.. Score produced by Bill Conti.

  1. Rummel Mor Bautista
    April 23, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Makes me want to see this movie again !

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