Thursday, March 5, 2015

Academy Award winning composer Bill Conti talks about his music for the film Rocky (1976)

Bill Conti interview, Bill Conti Rocky theme
Academy Award winning film and television composer Bill Conti talks with TV STORE ONLINE about creating the music for ROCKY (1976).
Bill Conti Rocky score, Gonna Fly Now Rocky
TV STORE ONLINE: Before we talk about ROCKY (1976) I was hoping we could chat quickly about your score for Luc Besson's THE BIG BLUE (1988)...
CONTI: Okay, sure.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did that opportunity come to you?
CONTI: Well, that's one of my favorites. It was a emergency. The producer, Jerry Weintraub, bought the film for the American market and he hated the score. He didn't want the previous score that was done for the film in there. I did the same thing for a Mickey Rourke picture called A PRAYER FOR DYING [1987]. The problem with THE BIG BLUE was that it had to be done quickly. I can remember driving down Sunset Boulevard and seeing a billboard for THE BIG BLUE that announced its release date, and I hadn't even started working on the music yet.
TV STORE ONLINE: As a fan of THE BIG BLUE, you can't think of the film without hearing your music for it....Was that a pan-flute that you used throughout...

Bill Conti The Big Blue, Luc Besson's The Big Blue soundtrack
CONTI: Yes, but it was done all with a synthesizer. If I would've had the time I would've brought in the musician who played the pan-flute for me on THE KARATE KID [1984].
TV STORE ONLINE: What was it like to collaborate with John Frankenheimer on the score for his film YEAR OF THE GUN [1991]?
CONTI: He was fine. He was in that one class of directors. John Cassavetes was in that class. Paul Mazursky was in that class. John Huston was in that class. Frankenheimer wanted my music and he didn't direct me in the sense that he instructed me in what to do. He let me have a free hand. He was hands off.
TV STORE ONLINE: You mentioned John Huston....One of the things I've heard you talk about is how much you love heroic music. The score for ROCKY, in particular, is very heroic. Your score for John Huston's VICTORY [1981] or ESCAPE TO VICTORY is very heroic as well...
Gonna Fly Now Rocky (1976)
CONTI: It becomes a genre almost, doesn't it? There's something that is evoked with that type of music. It's the idea of someone winning the game or the battle.
TV STORE ONLINE: I'll not waste your time by asking you the same redundant questions about your score for ROCKY that you've been asked so many times over the years....I do, however, hope that we can talk about the fanfare in the score? Those notes, the fanfare notes, are not just pivotal in Gonna Fly Now but throughout your ROCKY score itself. Where do you think that your interest in fanfare comes from? Is it your background in opera or your love of brass...
CONTI: I think it was just a part of everything I'd ever listened to up to that point. When you sit down to write something, you say or think to yourself: “I want to do something that has never been done before.” What you really mean by that is that you're just going to go  into your imagination and come back out with something that feels right to you. Music is like language. Shakespeare didn't invent the word “tomorrow”. But he figured out new ways to say it in a sentence. It's old material, but you figure out a new way to say it. It's really hard for a musician to be a blank slate. I don't know where it came from, only that, it was already just part of my vocabulary.
Bill Conti A Prayer for Dying, Bill Conti Escape To Victory
TV STORE ONLINE: It does something psychological to you when they hear it...
CONTI: We know that The Greeks, Egyptians, and The Romans went into battle with a fanfare. They would go into battle with that in their minds. I know that doesn't mean that much to very many people today, and it may not have helped them in battle, but they certainly thought that it did.
TV STORE ONLINE: That fanfare unconsciously super-charges you in those opening five seconds of ROCKY....
CONTI: That opening trumpet? When we screened the movie for the producers initially, we had a temp track on the film. We did a “spotting session” with them. It's where the director and composer screen the film and talk about where the music should begin and end. When that opening trumpet came on the screen at the very beginning of the film, one of the producers said, “What is that?” I said, ”That's how we're going to open the movie.” He looked at me and said,” We can't do that. That makes it sound like this is going to be a big movie.” I said, “We're going to have it pay off later.” An argument began between [Director] John Avildsen and the one of the producers. John had to fight to keep that in the film. That opening...John shot those letters. He took a camera and panned it across those letters himself.
Rocky (1976), Bill Conti interview, Rocky (1976) interviews
TV STORE ONLINE: It's a big opening, but what you can overlook about the score of ROCKY is just how sparse of a score it actually is really...After that opening trumpet fanfare there is no more music in the film for the first thirty or forty minutes.
CONTI: There's a mini-craze going on right now where a composer plays with a live orchestra in front of an audience. John Williams has done it often. Carmen Coppola did for NAPOLEON (1927).....I was approached to perform the ROCKY score live and I said, “Are you kidding? There's like twenty minutes of music in all of ROCKY.”
TV STORE ONLINE: In thinking about what you said a moment ago regarding The Greeks and their use of the fanfare in battle...Didn't you take that “wheel” in a way and re-invent it? You've taken the fanfare, which is commonly used as an introduction or announcement as you mentioned and turned it into a melody...
Gonna Fly Now Bill Conti, Gonna Fly Now Rocky theme music
CONTI: Well, no, because you're not thinking of Water Music by Handel. Or Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2... It's been around for a quite a while. The Triumph March in Aida....
TV STORE ONLINE: But melodically it's in the score in certain sad and quiet moments in the film... A scene that comes to mind is where Rocky is standing alone in the boxing arena with the ring and all the empty chairs....
CONTI: Right, it was very sad initially. In Reels #1-9 it's used very sadly, and then when we get to Reel #10--I gave it a very Wagnerian sense. I just turned it into something you could run and jump to.
TV STORE ONLINE: John Avildsen credits your music as one of reasons why the film was such a success...
CONTI: Well, John and I worked very closely on the score for ROCKY. And that's the way you want to work on a film.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've heard you tell a story about how Barbara Streisand once approached you at The Academy Awards to tell you how she used Gonna Fly Now as her morning workout music....What is it about Gonna Fly Now that elicits such responses from people? Why does it move people? You can't help but smile when you hear that opening trumpet....
behind-the-scenes photos from Rocky (1976)
CONTI: See, that's the worth of music. It's not literal and because it enters your ears--you make of it what you want. It effects each person differently. Some people are moved by it, and some aren't. It's a mystery, it's a fantasy. It's not literal, it's not intellectual. It's visceral. Also, I think, that the fact that it's part of something that's on a thirty-five-foot high screen doesn't hurt it either.
TV STORE ONLINE: Right, but are there notes that effect the human soul differently than others...?
CONTI: (Laughing) And how do you do that!
TV STORE ONLINE: (Laughing)...What I meant...There are certain chords or notes that I feel, personally, effect my psyche more than others. In particular, on the piano--E minor 7 [Em7], to me, strikes deeply on a emotional level for some reason...
Rocky stairs, Gonna Fly Now Rocky (1976)
CONTI: Okay, so, let's work from the back. There's the "pedal point" in Gonna Fly Now. At the end of the tune--it's all with the same bass. When Rocky's running up the stairs...The pedal point is in G, and there is a F chord above it, and a C chord above it, and then a D minor chord above that. It's the G, which is under the last minute or so of the training montage that doesn't move. It just sits there. That's what makes it so tense because it's looking for resolution. It becomes exciting because of that. It's dramatic and that's what you want in music.
TV STORE ONLINE: Separating the score for ROCKY from the film itself...What's striking, too, when you listen to it alone on CD is how it encapsulates the soul/funk sounds of Philadelphia. Philadelphia International Records was very prominent at the time and artists like Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The O'Jays, and Billy Paul were all over the radio...Was that a conscious decision to capture that musical aura of Philly for the film?
Bil Conti composer, Bill Conti The Right Stuff
CONTI: There was a debate between John and I. He had wanted the score to be classical and I said, "You can't deny the streets of Philadelphia. This is contemporary Philadelphia..." The "fugue" at the end of the film is classical. The fight montage music is classically inspired, but when you add in the drums, bass, and Frank Stallone and the Doo-Wop Group--you get enough of the city in there. I didn't intentionally think of the sounds of groups like The O'Jays though when I wrote the music...
TV STORE ONLINE: The arrangements throughout the score are so funky and soulful...There's the bongo drums throughout pieces with the wah-wah guitar....
CONTI: And that '70s hi-hat (laughing). I hated that disco hi-hat. It really dates the music. Sometimes, though, dating the music isn't a mistake. It was the '70s...But when I hear some of it now...Oh my God....
TV STORE ONLINE: With Gonna Fly Now...the lyrics...The whole idea of "Trying Hard Now...Getting Strong Now...." The lyrics directly comment on Rocky's state-of-being or state-of-mind in the moment... That doesn't seem to have ever been done prior in a film in the way that it's presented in ROCKY... Certainly, we had songs written for films that commented overall on a story of a film, or two character's love story...An example, and a odd one at that, would be Paul Anka singing "Verboten"for Sam Fuller's film VERBOTEN! (1959)....But in the way that it's done in Gonna Fly Now...It seems completely revisionist...It's a internal commentary for the character, and not a commentary on the character or narrative from an outside voice or third-party outside of the context...
CONTI: Maybe you're right. It was intentional, of course. SHAFT [1971] came before ROCKY though.
Rocky (1976)
TV STORE ONLINE: Right, I've considered SHAFT. But it's in that third-person voice..."Shaft is a bad..."  In '77, you were nominated for an Academy Award for your score for ROCKY and you also conducted The Academy Awards for the first time that year...Tell me what that experience was like?
CONTI: I was hired to conduct the show that year by [Producer] William Friedkin. He directed THE FRENCH CONNECTION [1971].  I went to his office to see him at Universal...I was waiting in the lobby and his secretary said, "Okay, you can go in and see him now." It was a huge office. I opened the door and he's at the end of this huge room. On his desk was a tape recorder. He pushes play on it and Gonna Fly Now starts. He played my tune and all during it--he's clapping. He did it for the entire tune. I was embarrassed. At the end he says, "Can you do this show?" I said, "I can nail this show." Then the meeting was over...(laughing) Then it got scary. I talked to Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini--who had both done the show before. I said, "What do you do?"
It was tough. Not only did I not win the award that night--I couldn't hear when they announced the winner because I was conducting! I didn't even know when my category was being announced. It was a great moment in my career though. It's right up there on my short-list of moments you never forget in your life. Right up there next to when you get married and when you have your first child.
Maynard Ferguson Gonna Fly Now Rocky theme
TV STORE ONLINE: How did the Maynard Ferguson version of Gonna Fly Now come about?
CONTI: I finished ROCKY and it was scheduled to be released. I took my next job on a film that was shooting over in Germany. I was in Munich for a month. While I was there ROCKY came out. I called my wife one day and she said, "That little movie you did opened... I think it's doing well..." When I came back, Maynard's version of Gonna Fly Now was on the charts. I was excited about it. As part of my contract, I had the score put on 16-track tape and when I had that done everyone thought I was throwing away my money. I took my 16-track tape up to United Artists and said: "Is there any interest in the original version?" So United Artists put the album out and it did very well.
TV STORE ONLINE: In '84, Presidential Candidate Walter Mondale used Gonna Fly Now as the theme music for his campaign...Did you ever hear from Mondale or his team about that?
Bill Conti Gonna Fly Now fanfare, Rocky fanfare
CONTI: No. Even with the Super Bowl commercials that it's been in--it's all a publishing thing and I don't have the publishing. So it's just a business transaction.
TV STORE ONLINE: To call Gonna Fly Now a movie theme song, in a way, at least to me, sort of diminishes it...Ignoring the song as simply a "movie theme" for a second, can you think of any other piece of 20th Century music that is as well recognized? I know that's a bit of a crazy question....But if you think of the John Williams theme from STAR WARS (1977), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1980) or JAWS (1975)--people may know those themes, and know them well, but ROCKY has almost a broader and farther reach in the zeitgeist.
CONTI: I don't think so. I think it's just a piece of film music just as the theme for STAR WARS is...
TV STORE ONLINE: It's an argument perhaps... I'd argue that not everyone knows STAR WARS or that theme music, but you can ask anyone on the street to listen to Gonna Fly Now or those trumpet notes and they either know it or know that it's from ROCKY....
CONTI: I'd say that the music from JAWS was the first big piece of music to stick in the mind of popular culture. That or Lalo Schifrin's Mission Impossible theme. What I think has made the ROCKY theme popular over the years is the film's story. The story helps the theme along. ROCKY didn't win the fight, but he went the distance. I think that the ROCKY theme is the most personal of any that you mentioned. That's because the story is about a underdog, and that's the reason why people respond to it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Were there film composers that you appreciated when you were younger? Those whose work were of interest to you even though you weren't yet sure of pursuing a career as a composer yourself?
CONTI: Certainly Miklos Rozsa.  I have always been taken with his score for BEN-HUR (1959).
TV STORE ONLINE: What are you working on now?
CONTI: I'm conducting the San Diego Symphony. I have concerts planned for this July and August. I'm also doing some writing, but I can't talk about it yet. 
 Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung 
Special thanks goes to Daniel Schweiger for his assistance 
in obtaining this interview.