Movies, Music, and Memory: Bill Conti’s ‘Rocky’ Soundtrack

Some of my earliest memories involve film. I can remember the Return of the Jedi t-shirt I wore to see the movie when it came out in May of 1983. I remember the seats and curtains that draped the walls of the auditorium were a deep velvety red. I remember the thrill I felt in my belly that Friday at school wondering what new adventures Luke and Co. might be up to.

I remember going to see Predator with my dad. I remember the exact theater we went to (we saw Action Jackson, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Lethal Weapon 2 & 3, and so many others at that same theater). I remember the weather that day was hot and the sky was the bluest of blues, but to the south clouds heavy with rain were piling up. It would storm before the movie was over. (What is it about going to the movies when it’s storming out?) I remember playing After Burner in the arcade next door after the movie. It was one of the ones you sat in, that moved and vibrated. Like the one John Connor plays in T2.

I remember where I saw Tim Burton’s Batman, Batman Forever, The Crow, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, Independence Day, Pleasantville, the Star Wars Special Editions, Dude, Where’s My Car (I know, I know), and Pirates of the Caribbean. I remember who I saw these films with. I remember seeing Eyes Wide Shut with my best friend and neither of us knowing what to make of what we’d just seen. I remember the tears that streamed down my cheeks as I walked out of Saving Private Ryan with that same friend, and I remember those same tears on his face and the look of understanding we shared before we got into his car and drove away from the multiplex.

That theater is gone now. But the memories remain.

All of these movies, and the images that they are comprised of, are tied to very specific memories. And those images hold a power that transcends entertainment. But the most powerful of those images are the ones that are also bound up with music. The image of Luke staring out at the twin sunset is iconic. But set to John Williams’ inimitable score, the image becomes something else. Something new. Something primal. Something capable of inducing emotion that seems to spring, wholly-formed, from somewhere deep inside. It’s inexplicable. But for those of you who’ve felt the elation, the urge to do something, conquer something, defend something; the urge to laugh, to shout, to cry; it’s undeniable. Somehow, someway, this synthesis of words and images and music, meant to tell the stories of others, begins to tell our stories too.

*

I had the house to myself for an hour or two earlier this week, something that doesn’t happen very often these days. It was quiet. My son and I had been talking the day before about vinyl – he’d just gotten copies of the first pressing of a record he’d finished late last year. In the stillness, I found myself sorting through my own vinyl collection for something to quiet the quiet. I settled on Bill Conti’s score for Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film, Rocky. The sleeve is black. The title, bold. White. Simple.

There’s nothing simple about the music etched on the glossy black disc inside.

Sylvester Stallone had this to say about Conti:

 “Sly, let me introduce you to Bill Conti…”
I think I nodded then began to
scratch my chin as I inspected
Mr. Bill Conti. He was young.
Thin. Acutely intense. Detached.
Dark. Black eyes dwelling deep in
his skull. Something serpent-like
in his mannerisms…

When I wrote the script for “ROCKY,”
I wanted passion music. I wanted a
symphony of powerful men,
… of lonely women.
… of thick-necked losers.
… of human ships that crash in the night.
… of love.
… of courage.
… of dignity cast in bronze.

I only wished the music could come
from inside me, but I was born with
ears of stone.
Bill Conti shook everyone’s hand and
walked out the door… Three weeks
later, Bill Conti walked in the door
with music under his arm.
The music began.
I was sweating.
I am impossible to satisfy, I thought.
I was cheering!!!
How did this thin man with an Afghan dog,
seize the soul of every character and set
it to music?! Then it dawned on me. Simple.
How could I have not known at our first
meeting that he was brilliant.
…Bill Conti is Italian.

Rocky came out the year I was born. It would be a few years before I could watch it and a few more before I could understand what I was watching. But Rocky, and its sequels, figure into some of the most visceral memories I have of my childhood. I still have the red Franklin boxing gloves my dad bought me when I was old enough to stand up and trade jabs with him. I still have a picture of one of those first lessons. He on his knees in plain, black gloves. Me in a gray warm up suit (just like Rocky’s) and sporting the meanest mug I could muster.

There are a lot reasons why Rocky and its sequels still spar in the boxing ring of my mind. They’re powerful films built upon simple stories and I experienced them at a time before I was capable of thinking critically about them and before I was aware of their effects on my malleable young mind. I involuntarily drew lines of comparison from my family to the characters in the film. My dad was Rocky. My mom, Adrian. Both strong. Stubborn. And heroic in his and her own way. I idolized my parents and they loved those films. So I loved them, too.

But Bill Conti’s music is an undeniable part of the equation.

No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the first few brass notes of “Gonna Fly Now” stop me dead in my tracks. Make me want to climb something, sprint up a flight of stairs. Punch the air! The song never fails to produce inside of me a need to expend energy. It’s the most recognizable piece of music on the record and arguably one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever written. But heard in the context of the entire album, from start to finish, it becomes more than a piece of movie propaganda, more than a song for workout mixes played on iPhones. It is pride and ambition and hubris and ego. It’s losers who would be winners and winners who would be losers. It’s an anthem to the human spirit.

And where the chorus of “Gonna Fly Now” comes crashing to a halt, “Philadelphia Morning” begins with one lonely note from a french horn. It builds slowly and, together with the sparse notes of a few accompanying instruments, conjures images of ships rusting under sheets of milky fog. Of blood-red keels rolling over and disappearing beneath dark, still waters. “Going the Distance” picks up from that isolation and soars powerfully to end on a note of triumphant uncertainty.

“Take You Back” and “You Take My Heart Away” are pop numbers that perfectly encapsulate the decade they travel to us from. The latter makes use of horns and an arrangement that hints at the overarching theme that’s at the core of “Gonna Fly Now”. Seriously, if you want to know what the 1970s were like, what they felt like, the stuff the people who lived back then cared about, the way they hurt and loved; listen to these two songs. “Fanfare For Rocky” makes use of the same backbone theme from the opening track, but where “Gonna Fly Now” gives way to pop rock sensibilities, “Fanfare’s” horns and drums call forth images of men in olive drab uniforms marching among diesel fumes and machines of war and gold-tinged banners of red, white, and blue.

“Alone in the Ring’s” isolating piano notes fade to “The Final Bell”, the soundtrack and film’s climax and arguably the most thrilling, emotional piece of music on the album, while the subtle string harmonies of “Rocky’s Reward” give the listener a moment to catch his breath and reflect on what has come before.

Bill Conti’s score for Rocky is a master work of film music. Every time I listen to it, I’m transported to the streets of Philadelphia. My heart pounds. Sweat, despite the cold, traces my brow and stings my eyes. My feet hammer the pavement, the rail yard, the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I hear the city urging me on. I feel an ache in my knuckles, a desire to fight, just once, for something I believe in. To try. To fail. To love. To lose. And to walk away with something more than a trophy or the adoration of strangers. Something inside. Something no one can ever take away.

Bill Conti’s score for Rocky is more than music. It’s more than movies. It’s memory and love and hope and struggle. It’s blood and tears and pride and anguish. It’s everything we want to be and everything we can never be. It’s us.

And that is why it endures.