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CREED II – Ludwig Göransson

November 28, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The unexpected critical and commercial success of Creed, the seventh movie in the enduring Rocky franchise that began in 1976, made a sequel inevitable. However, whereas the Rocky movies mostly got progressively worse as the series went on (who can forget Rocky’s robot butler in Rocky IV?), the two Creed movies have maintained their high quality through a combination of excellent writing, directing, acting, and emotional content, as well as some sensationally choreographed and realistic fight sequences. Michael B. Jordan continues in the title role as Adonis Creed, the son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. The past comes back to haunt Adonis when Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago – the man who killed his father in the ring – challenges him to a fight. To rise to the occasion, Adonis again calls on Rocky Balboa to train him – but Rocky is reluctant to get involved in the fight, fearing that the son will suffer the same fate as the father. Sylvester Stallone returns to play Rocky for the eighth time, Dolph Lundgren reprises his iconic role as Ivan, Tessa Thompson plays Adonis’s fiancée Bianca, and Romanian actor Florin Munteanu debuts as the man-mountain Viktor. The film is directed by Steven Caple Jr., taking over the reigns from Ryan Coogler, and has an original score by Ludwig Göransson.

What’s great about Creed II is its dramatic depth. Adonis Creed is a complicated character, who is both inspired and haunted by his father’s legacy, and whose need to prove himself on his own terms is both a blessing and a curse. Sylvester Stallone, despite all the criticisms he has endured over the years, puts in one of the best performances of his career as Rocky; more than any other, this is the role for which he will probably be best remembered, and just like he did in his Oscar-nominated turn in the first Creed film, he gives the old fighter wisdom, gravitas, and a real emotional core which is at times very moving. However, for me, the most interesting part of Creed II is what it does with Ivan Drago. For those who don’t remember, Drago was the monosyllabic Soviet automaton who in Rocky IV was pumped full of performance enhancing drugs, beat Apollo Creed to death in the ring, and gave Rocky the hammering of his life, before being knocked out in the final seconds of the bout. Rocky’s victory was celebrated across the United States, but I don’t think anyone ever really asked what happened to Drago in the aftermath of his defeat… well, in this film, we find out, and it adds a great deal of pathos to Dolph Lundgren’s already unexpectedly nuanced performance. I can’t believe I’m actually writing a paragraph where I am genuinely praising subtle acting performances by Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren, but Creed II is bringing out excellence in these two men that even they probably didn’t know they had.

Ludwig Göransson has really burst onto the mainstream music scene in a big way over the last few years. When he’s not writing blockbuster scores for movies like Creed, Black Panther, and Venom, he’s winning Grammy Awards for his work with his long-time friend and Community alum Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino, and working as a producer for up-and-coming hip-hop artists like Chance the Rapper. The fact that Göransson has a foot in both worlds makes him the perfect composer for Creed II, which draws from the big and bold symphonic tradition initiated by Bill Conti, but also from the world of contemporary R&B and hip-hop. The blending of these two styles makes the score for Creed II vital and relevant, and representative of today’s musical zeitgeist, but also interesting from a purely musical point of view. How do you pay homage to these two diverse styles without diluting the essence and power of either of them? Göransson shows us.

A great deal of the score will appeal to fans of traditional orchestral music. It regularly revisits the themes he wrote for Creed – both the one for Adonis himself, and the euphoric ‘fighting stronger’ motif – while featuring the kernels of several of the themes that Bill Conti wrote back in the day. However, perhaps the most interesting one is the brand new theme for the Drago family which is steeped in the bold traditions of Russian classical music and is quite superb. It first appears in the first cue, “Drago,” which introduces us to the now grizzled and bitter Ivan Drago, thirty years on from his loss to Rocky, living in a rundown apartment in Kiev with his son Viktor, stripped of his dignity, his money, and everything that once made him one of the most formidable fighters in the world. The theme emerges as father and son step out into the cold grey Ukrainian dawn for a training run, a faraway sounding theme picked out on a balalaika and an electric guitar, accompanied by strings and ominous synth tones. The theme almost sounds like it could be a folk song – it has the merest hint of nostalgia for a glorious past through its Slavic chord progressions – but as it progresses it slowly builds to a big finale featuring contemporary percussion rhythms and a mass of powerful brass. Viktor is a physical beast – ruthless and uncompromising – and Ivan knows that he will be the one to restore honor to the Drago name.

Meanwhile, over in the United States, Adonis Creed is fulfilling his destiny and becoming the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. “Wheeler Fight” is excellent, aggressive action music filled with throbbing orchestral lines, prominent brass accents, electronic percussion, Bill Conti-style chord progressions, and statements of the Creed theme in the horns. It’s heroic and uplifting, and ends with a big flourish of Adonis’s fanfare, as the son finally emulates the successes of his late father. The subsequent “Yo? Is That a Yes?” is more low-key and intimate, featuring understated synths and guitars, as Adonis nervously proposes to Bianca in their Las Vegas hotel room after the fight.

Things change in the aftermath of “The Public Challenge,” when Ivan and Viktor step out into the limelight and try to goad Adonis into accepting a title fight by disparaging the memory of Apollo. The tension of the events are underscored with a synth-and-string combo, featuring elongated chords, an undercurrent of menace, hints of Drago’s theme on guitars, and the first four notes of Conti’s Rocky theme on pianos. This leads into “You Think I’m Going to Lose,” which underscores the subsequent confrontation between Adonis and Rocky as they strongly disagree about what their response to the Drago challenge should be. Here, Göransson makes use of yet more long and drawn out string passages, and a regretful statement of the Creed theme on soft horns.

Estranged from Rocky, blinded by arrogance, and angry with the Dragos over their disrespect towards his late father, Adonis rushes into the bout with Viktor and suffers a devastating loss – just as Ivan intended – resulting in a number of potentially career-ending injuries. Much of the middle section of the score deals with Adonis’s subsequent recovery, not only from his physical wounds, but also from the mental and psychological issues that have plagued him his entire life. It is in this sequence that Göransson works in his rap, R&B, and hip-hop side, using it as a motivational tool to accompany Adonis on the road to recovery. These hip-hop elements combine expertly with further statements of the film’s orchestral themes, and to his enormous credit they never feel out of place. I’m not a fan of hip-hop in any way – in fact, it’s probably my least favorite musical genre – but Göransson somehow manages to make the styles blend together in an organic, seamless manner. Not only that, but the rap lyrics are directly related to what’s happening on screen at the time; rather than being needle-dropped unit-movers, these are songs tailored specifically to the movie, with a clear narrative purpose.

I really like “Balanced Breakfast,” a clever but short cue which combines the Drago theme (on brass underpinned by industrial-sounding electronic textures) with the Creed theme (more hopeful, for warm horns and see-saw strings) for the first time. “Ice Cold” combines the orchestra with hip-hop vocals by California rapper Vince Staples; there are several strident performances of the Creed theme, including one in an action arrangement with chugging string ostinatos, urgent brasses, electronic percussion, and a choir, which sounds positive, defiant, and is intended to encourage greatness. “Adonis and Amara” features the Creed theme arranged for bass flute and jazzy guitar riffs, a warm and intimate cue which illustrates how Adonis is finding new meaning in his life through his love for his newborn daughter. “You Might Find Me” features haunting, Gospel-inflected vocals by British singer Jacob Banks, accompanied by a uniquely bold string ostinato and offset with warm piano chords.

“Runnin” is a superb cue which underscores the film’s ubiquitous training montage as Adonis – having reconciled with Rocky – prepares for his rematch with Viktor at an isolated boxing boot camp in the Southern California desert. The string phrases are classical, rhythmic, and elegant, but they are accompanied by hip-hop beats, Bill Conti-influenced brass heroism, and noticeably powerful percussion. The huge string statement of the ‘Fighting Stronger’ theme from Creed is upbeat, determined, and single-minded. The rap from the appropriately-named New York hip-hop artist A$AP Rocky acts as encouragement to Adonis; quite brilliantly, he manages to work the lyric “leggo my eggo” into his song, which for some reason I absolutely love. As a frame of reference, parts of this cue remind me very much of the music Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams wrote for The Amazing Spider-Man II, where hip-hop vocals played a major role in the identity for Jamie Foxx’s character Electro. The whole thing builds up to an enormous finale, and when the massed choir starts chanting the word ‘fight’ the effect is about as un-subtle as it’s possible to be, but damn if it’s not rousing.

The finale of the score and the film is based around the re-match between Adonis and Viktor. “Drago’s Walk Out” showcases an unexpectedly beautiful statement of Drago’s theme for a solo soprano vocalist and piano; it gradually becomes bigger, bolder, and more imposing, full of patriotic Russian grandeur, and climaxes with a massive orchestral statement of the theme as Viktor enters the ring. “Fight in Moscow” is packed to the gills with thrilling action music for the full orchestra – pounding percussion, swirling strings, brass clusters. I love how Göransson uses both the Creed theme and Drago’s theme contrapuntally, with one dominant over the other depending on who has the upper hand in the fight at that point. The whole thing is exciting, breathless, brutal, relentless, and somehow it continues to increase in intensity as more and more rounds are fought. The brass writing beginning at 4:58 is just magnificent, and I especially appreciate the broken chord (at 5:13) and the subsequent brief moment of anguished ambient electronica that occurs after Adonis is knocked to the floor and apparently beaten. The action music in Black Panther and Venom was at times outstanding, and this is on a par with it.

“It’s Your Time,” like “You’re a Creed” from the first score, is where Göransson throws away all sense of restraint and embraces full-on Bill Conti nostalgia – here is Adonis’s moment of glory and redemption. The bombastic performances of the Rocky Fanfare, the iconic ‘Gonna Fly Now’ melody, and the Creed theme are spine-tingling, but Göransson never forgets the dramatic undercurrent of the film, and the distraught statement of Drago’s theme at 0:55 hammers home what this fight means to that family too. The finale of the cue is glorious, as an emotional statement of Conti’s ‘Going the Distance’ theme segues into a magnificent setting of the Creed theme arranged contrapuntally against the ‘Gonna Fly Now’ melody; this is followed by lushly-orchestrated solo statements of both the Creed theme and ‘Gonna Fly Now’ for strings and piano as Adonis, Rocky, and Bianca celebrate their victory. The score – and film – concludes on a moment of warmth and intimacy in “Family Visit” as Adonis visits his father Apollo’s grave and introduces grandfather to granddaughter; Creed’s theme is heard initially on quiet guitars with horn accents, before a final statement for piano and harp that is just gorgeous.

In addition to Göransson’s score the album contains two original songs which are performed on screen by Tessa Thompson in character as Bianca; the first, “Time Tick,” is performed as part of a nightclub scene, while “I Will Go to War” is performed as Adonis comes out for his second bout with Drago. I don’t like them. I don’t have anything more to say there.

These two tiny blips aside, for me Creed II is one of the best drama scores of the year. It’s easily the equal of the first score in this series, and anyone who enjoyed that one will certainly feel the same way about this one. Ludwig Göransson is clearly one of the few active composers who can bridge the gap between film scores and massively popular chart music, and this score is a perfect illustration of why – it effortlessly combines genuinely excellent orchestral writing with authentic contemporary hip-hop, and does it so well that even someone like me, who generally dislikes hip-hop a great deal, can find it musically rewarding and powerfully uplifting. Add in a huge dollop of undisguised and unashamed 1970s Bill Conti sentimentality, and you’re looking at a winner all the way.

Buy the Creed II soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Drago (3:34)
  • Wheeler Fight (2:32)
  • Yo? Is That a Yes? (1:27)
  • The Public Challenge (4:04)
  • Time Tick (written by Ludwig Göransson and Bibi Bourelly, performed by Tessa Thompson) (2:58)
  • You Think I’m Going to Lose (2:58)
  • Balanced Breakfast (1:31)
  • Ice Cold (written by Ludwig Göransson, Vince Staples, Michael Williams II, and Asheton Hogan, performed by Ludwig Göransson feat. Vince Staples) (2:10)
  • Under Water (2:01)
  • Adonis and Amara (2:27)
  • You Might Find Me (written by Ludwig Göransson and Jacob Banks, performed by Ludwig Göransson feat. Jacob Banks) (1:19)
  • Runnin’ (written by Ludwig Göransson, Michael Williams II, and Rakim Mayers, performed by Ludwig Göransson feat. A$AP Rocky) (5:04)
  • Drago’s Walk Out (1:59)
  • I Will Go to War (written by Ludwig Göransson and James Fauntleroy, performed by Tessa Thompson) (1:37)
  • Fight in Moscow (6:14)
  • It’s Your Time (5:28)
  • Family Visit (3:26)

Running Time: 50 minutes 56 seconds

Sony Classical (2018)

Music composed by Ludwig Göransson. Conducted by Edward Trybek. Orchestrations by Edward Trybek, Henri Wilkinson and Jeff Tinsley. Original ‘Rocky’ themes by Bill Conti. Recorded and mixed by Chris Fogel. Edited by David Metzner and Ronald Webb. Album produced by Ludwig Göransson.

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