Monday, April 13, 2015

Birthday Take: Bill Conti in "Rocky" (1976)

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Bill Conti
Born: April 13, 1942 (73 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Song - "Gonna Fly Now" from Rocky (nominated)

The Take

If there's one thing that can be said about the movie Rocky and its subsequent sequels, it's that their music is usually some of the best motivational music out there. Majority of people would associate Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" as the franchise's highest point. It definitely has its appeal, especially with its redemptive lyrics. However, there's a piece of music that is more associated with Rocky than any other piece. It is the one that is playing as Rocky Balboa climbs the stairs during a training montage and faces the world around him. It is the perfectly timed song that with its intro sets the pace for life as if it is a massive boxing match. It fits so perfectly and is the reason that Bill Conti is today's pick for Birthday Take.

It isn't likely that you'd consider this to be a song. It plays more like an iconic piece of score like John Williams' "Imperial March" or "The Ride of the Valkyries." Technically, those are scores. However, this was nominated in the Best Original Song category and has actual lyrics, which is probably the least memorable part of the song. The lyrics barely exist in favor of the now iconic melody that plays. It ushers in Rocky as he becomes a fighting machine and is ready to take on his toughest challenges. Most of all, it feels triumphant even out of context and could make the most mundane of activities feel momentous. 

In fact, it does seem likely that it will often be mistaken for "Rocky's Theme," which features the same melody, but not with as aggressive of strings. It feel rushed, but works in the moment. Still, when people want to play that iconic Rocky piece of music, they turn to "Gonna Fly Now" because of its solid production. While the film incorporates various other songs, Conti's minimal amount of work is what stands out. It helps to create an iconic image of Rocky along with the performances and the surprise ending. It is impossible to not separate the two.

The only odd thing is that Conti didn't win Best Original Song while most of the other people in the film walked away with something, including Best Picture. In fact, Conti was only nominated three times and won for Best Original Score for The Right Stuff. Yes, there was more to that work than a three minute ditty here, but it remains his towering achievement in film for most people. Without it, the triumphant "Eye of the Tiger" wouldn't have seemed so commonplace. It was an anthem for the underdog to train and become a hero. That's essentially what has driven these films for as long as they have. It's American patriotism at its core. It only makes sense that the anthem has the soaring sound of horns.

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