Spoilers for Creed below. You’ve been warned.
Don’t go into Creed expecting to hear those signature Rocky trumpets playing during montages or boxing scenes. Instead, wait for them to arrive at just the right moment. You’ll find yourself wanting to stand up and cheer when they do. It’s one of the best moments in the entire film, and it almost didn’t happen.
First, a little background. Rocky was so low-budget that the producers only had twenty-five thousand dollars set aside for the musical score. That had to cover everything, from paying the composer and multi-piece orchestra to renting a sound studio to mastering the recordings. Every major composer turned them down until the young (and affordable) Bill Conti said yes. The film’s director, John Avildsen, met with Conti and showed him 8-milimeter movies of their rehearsals for the boxing scenes. At one point, he slowed down the projector and played Beethoven’s “Pastoral” in the background, attempting to illustrate that he not only wanted a big, classical score for the movie but also a score which realized the movie was more or less a boxing fairytale and love story.
What Conti came up with only took three hours to record in the studio, partially because he was continually encouraged to keep moving along so that they could get out of the expensive studio as fast as possible. However, that kind of penny-pinching was temporarily put on pause when Conti and the orchestra recorded the section which was to accompany the montage of Rocky training prior to the big fight. All Conti originally had was the now-iconic opening with the trumpets, but he sensed he could go further and Avildsen agreed. So, they kept building on it to the point of even adding lyrics and a choir.
That’s how the Oscar-nominated “Gonna Fly Now” was born, a song which not only lifted the movie but also instantly entered the pop culture lexicon and has never left, played by countless marching bands at sporting events, frequently used as inspirational workout music throughout the decades. Conti’s music, from “Gonna Fly Now” to the persistent love theme accompanying Rocky and Adrian, became as much of a character in Rocky and its many sequels as any of the flesh and blood humans on screen.
For Ryan Coogler and Ludwig Goransson, the director and composer of Creed, that was a problem. Conti’s music has been overused and overexposed to the point of becoming cliche. If audiences were going to take Creed seriously they were going to have to go along for a new journey, one which didn’t lean upon those Conti trumpets to underscore the boxing scenes and signal to the audience that the good guy’s about to win. However, it’s a tricky thing to make a new movie in a franchise which has become synonymous with its iconic musical score. We expect a new Terminator movie to have some hint of that music we remember from Terminator 2, and for some of us it’s still strange to see a Batman who is NOT accompanied by Danny Elfman or a Superman who has no time for John Williams. Would Creed truly feel like a Rocky movie if those trumpets don’t pop up at least once?
Still, Coogler and Goransson wanted no part of it, as they recently told NPR:
RYAN COOGLER: It was always a necessary thing for us to make this Adonis’s movie and to make it something different, something that would have a millennial perspective.
LUDWIG GORANSSON: Mine and Ryan’s original conversation about the score was that we didn’t want to have any restraints or any limitations based off the original “Rocky” music.
COOGLER: He ended up coming up to the Bay Area and spent a time in a King’s Gym, which is the gym where I used to work out.
GORANSSON: And we had a whole day of boxing sessions and came up with some really amazing sound. I had my sound designer work on taking a lot of these sounds and manipulating them, and then out of those sounds, I made beats. So we took the speed bag sound, and I looped it and then took that rhythm and put a really a low 808 bass under it.
But they were still missing something. The music they had was clever and effective, but it wasn’t heroic enough. It didn’t communicate to a 2015 audience what the Bill Conti trumpets did to a 1976 audience. The answer, as it turns out, was right in front of them the entire time. They didn’t realize that until they went to see Straight Outta Compton together:
COOGLER: I was sitting there antsy. And I’m thinking, like, Man, when are they going to play the [N.W.A.] songs? When are they going to get to this? When are they going to get to that? And when they got to the songs, I just felt myself just want to jump up in the theater and cheer, you know what I mean? And I realized – I was like, holy smokes, like, this is possibly how some people will feel, you know, when they watch our film.
So, Goransson went back in and subtly weaved in new variations on Conti’s original themes, particularly the Rocky/Adrian love theme which was updated and re-purposed to underscore the scenes with Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. However, he held back on those trumpets, dropping them in out of nowhere at just the right moment during the climactic fight, perfectly applying Straight Outta Compton‘s lesson of upping the tension by making the audience wait for what they know is eventually going to come.
COOGLER: We needed it, but we needed it in a way that didn’t take attention away from Adonis’s own theme from Adonis’s own story. But we knew that if we could find a way to bring it in naturally in the moments that call for it, that it wouldn’t detract. It would actually help to boost and help to support. You know, I always felt like the movie had to earn those Conti sounds.
I’d say that it more than earned those sounds, and its effectiveness is an example of the way good filmmakers (like Creed‘s Ryan Coogler) learn from other good filmmakers (like Straight Outta Compton‘s F. Gary Gray).