Bill Conti And The Underdog Story Behind The Rocky Soundtrack

Another perspective on the score that would define Sylvester Stallone’s career.

Sylvester Stallone in RockyImage Picture MGM

When the Chicago Cubs went 3-1 down to the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, first baseman Anthony Rizzo turned to a familiar source of encouragement: Rocky.

The quintessential underdog story, Rizzo’s Rocky obsession provided the inspiration behind the Cubs unlikely comeback, ending the team’s 108-year trophy drought in the process, all the while soundtracked by the work of Bill Conti.

It’s a familiar story and one that underpins the thematic focus of Conti’s score – something the composer quickly grasped upon his first meeting with director John G. Avildsen and the film’s writer and star, Sylvester Stallone.

“John saw the story of Rocky as a fable of sorts. Improbable, not necessarily believable but a timeless fairy tale all the same,” Conti explains to loaded.

“Sly wanted a score that defied some of the macho nature of the story being told.”

To help illustrated his point, Avildsen went as far as showing Conti clips of classic boxing matches, highlighting the borderline-balletic nature of the sporting contest.

Despite the sporting elements and modern fairytale focus however, Conti was keen to keep the film’s other important touchstone, the real-life streets of Philadelphia, as a thematic component -something Avildsen eventually acquiesce to during a late night drinking session.

In truth, it was the least he could do – Conti had come in as a late replacement for Talia Shire’s husband, David, who had turned down the offer to compose the film’s score.

“It was a package deal. I basically had to pay for everything connected with the music; the soundstage, the musicians, the copyings, the tape and the studio rental.

“John saw the story of Rocky as a fable of sorts. Improbable, not necessarily believable but a timeless fairy tale all the same”

“The problem was that this was basically a $25,000 package deal and a couple of people actually ended turning it down because they couldn’t make any money.”

It was a strictly budgeted process that matched the development of the film itself – Stallone had famously held out for the titular role, eventually signing a studio deal that gave him a significantly reduced budget.

“I went away and did writing for the soundtrack,” Conti recalls.

“Then it was a case of recording the whole thing over the course of a three-hour session. We went very fast, we only had first takes and rehearsals but did the whole score – it was the only way I could do it where I would make some money.”

Arguably the most important moment in the film’s score, and the one that stands out as one of the defining moments of the entire Rocky franchise came late on in proceedings though – Gonna Fly Now.

“John called me and told me he needed about a minute’s worth of music to cut a montage of Rocky training to,” Conti reveals.

“You have to remember that for the first nine reels of the film we’ve seen Rocky as this down on his luck loser. Now was the moment in the film though when it was time to switch that up – he’s training for the big fight and the audience are starting to think he has a chance.

“Having composed a lot of sad music for the first nine reels, I decided to bring the brass in for the 10th. I wanted to give it a Gladiator style vibe but one that was rooted to the streets.”

What started as a request for around a minute’s worth of music soon evolved into something more, with Avildsen taken by Conti’s efforts, with the scene extended by a further two minutes.

“I wanted to give it a Gladiator style vibe but one that was rooted to the streets”

“The director then asked me to put words to the music, so I contacted these two women who had worked on the project as lyricists for all the songs that played on the radio. They came up with all the gonna fly now stuff.”

To say Gonna Fly Now represents the most iconic moment in the film’s score would be an understatement – not only is it played by teams like the Cubs even to this day but it still stands on a par with soundtracks from the likes of Star Wars and James Bond.

Conti would even go on to score a Bond movie himself but, despite the success he enjoyed elsewhere, he’s happy to admit Rocky was the film that “put me on the map.”

“Rocky is without a doubt the best thing that ever happened to me. To be successful you have to have a hit. It’s not always a reflection on your work but I feel very lucky and grateful to have had that.”

The Greatest Boxing Ringwalk Songs (2CD) album is available in the shops on 25th November or you can buy now direct from Split Records on www.greatestboxingringwalksongs.com

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Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.