More than two decades ago, as the United States’ bicentennial approached, motion pictures increasingly reflected the fracturing American dream. After a shameful presidential resignation, a demoralizing war and a crippling oil crisis collectively exposed the nation’s weaknesses to foreign powers — in the throes, no less, of the ongoing cold war, which was entering its third decade — Hollywood wiped the soft-focus crust from its lens in favor of a more critical and realistic light. Moviegoers flocked to films such as All the President’s Men and Network and even a remake of the classic King Kong, suggesting a mainstream awareness of the dangers of unchecked power and the repercussions of human-meddling. But, ever bearing the “show must go on” torch, both Hollywood and the American public ultimately rang in the two-hundredth year in a traditional manner. Knuckling up to this doom and gloom, the top film of the year simply retold the American dream and, in the process, birthed a new national anthem.
Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky topped the box-office charts on the strength of its modernization of the familiar rags-to-riches yarn. Writer-actor Stallone pitted a down-on-his-luck protagonist against the national love-hate antagonist: a celebrity. Much like Horatio Alger’s celebration of the Protestant work ethic roughly a century prior, Rocky re-spun the meritocracy myth. The eponymous hero was a do-nothing nobody until opportunity — a title bout with a champion boxer — chose him. And, similar to Alger’s moral fables, Rocky celebrated the humble aspirations (“going the distance”) of a blue-collar chum in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and overwhelmingly improbable situations.
Although the film received recognition for its cinematic virtues — it won an Academy Award for direction — its score also played a major role in spreading the mythology. Last year’s release of Rocky Balboa, the sixth and (purported) final installment in the series, provided a welcome opportunity to reassess this role. Rocky Balboa: The Best of Rocky, released in December via Capitol, collected highlights from each film, and the bulk of the eighteen tracks included were written by mainstay cinematic composer Bill Conti. Conti wrote his share of stock music for this Hollywood franchise: the tension-filled “Going the Distance” relied on familiar Old World melodies and kept the church bells a’ ringin’, and the paramour’s theme, “Adrian,” dripped with Chet Baker syrup and tapped out soft sentimentality, literally covering the requisite narrative highs and lows.
But Conti’s soundtrack stood out when it paralleled the film’s bewildering mixture of modesty and bombast. Though his frequent use of staccato-horn fanfares and blustering low brass counterpoint were cribbed from the Wagner school of (melo)drama, he made over traditional film scoring with pop flourishes: synthesizers, syncopated tambourines, and a dash of soul. The story may have been set in Philadelphia, but Conti, like Rocky, aspired beyond TSOP. He wanted the sound of America.
Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” successfully became Rocky‘s central theme by embracing the film’s values. Much like the famous training sequence(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6O8xoN9NSzw) that the composition was set to, this de facto theme song built momentum gradually — “getting stronger!” Like the fighter, “Gonna Fly Now” was artlessly soaring, proud of its 9-to-5 weariness, and brazen in its idealism. The song’s climax — a cacophonous storm of steadily marching trumpets, cart-wheeling strings, choral voices, and a funky backbeat — made Sousa sound subtle and became a source of inspiration for the nation.
Evidently Rocky became excited with the American dream after that first taste of fame and respect. As the film became a sequel and then a series, subsequent installations lost sight of the spirit of ’76. And although in these episodes Conti continued to score to the constant high-low-high narrative, the soundtracks began to give preference to hits of the day. Songs such as Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and James Brown’s “Living in America” became as ingrained in the public conscience as “Gonna Fly Now,” but for a new reason: They mirrored the following films’ celebrations of ego and success. In Rocky III, “Eye of the Tiger” made clear that hometown Philadelphia was not enough; the opening guitar line accompanied a montage(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrOawFUdFfU) of the hero’s name in lights and his rock ’em-sock ’em successes. In Rocky IV, “Living in America” actually presaged a devastating blow(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GooPzffWkVc), but no matter: Rocky still overcame the song’s bitter irony (and the cold war) in the end. In an odd twist of life imitates art, the Rocky franchise consumed its aspirations like performance-enhancing supplements.
Perhaps most encouraging about the gradual perversion of the Rocky myth has been its lack of affect on “Gonna Fly Now.” Although Rocky has become a slow ride to oblivion to many, Conti’s composition has continually absorbed the blows and stood its ground. The track anchors the series in the original’s dreams and efforts, and it humbles the sequels’ Hollywood largesse. Though the training sequences in II and III became harder, better, and faster and unabashedly manifest with destiny — even as early as Rocky II, the hero’s abiding congregation that followed him to the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s stairs cemented his pending perpetual success — the presence of the unchanging song reminded us of the perseverance that kept the hero relevant. Although IV‘s and V‘s abandonment of the trademark song reflected the gradual decline of the franchise, Rocky Balboa wisely reunited(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_lyCD3NaL4) with Conti’s/Rocky’s trademark to recapture that old glory. Sure, in NOWish fashion the song received the remix treatment. But producer John X scarcely touched the original. Although Rocky Balboa fell far short of the critical and commercial success of the original, it tactfully reached back to the film’s roots to find a resolution. In this sense, “Gonna Fly Now” does more than conjure a past memory, but provide guidance for a present course. What an appropriate sentiment, especially for the only nation that could have birthed this modern myth.
Each month, Dan Nishimoto (sintalentos at gmail dot com) gets a song (or four) stuck in his head. And, for that brief period, those sounds become the greatest hits of his life. Join him as he makes sense of ’em, feels their spirits, or simply takes a trip down memory lane.