Few films resonate with American audiences like the “Rocky” franchise of movies. They express The American Dream, the underdog overcoming seemingly impossible odds, all the while never losing touch with humanity. We all saw ourselves within Rocky Balboa, especially in the first film, with Bill Conti’s score, centered on ‘Gonna Fly Now’ echoing the potential for greatness within us all.
2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of “Rocky IV,” the most successful film in the series, and the first third sequel to eclipse the box office triumph of its original parent film. “Rocky IV” was the right film at the right time. It became a parable for The Cold War, with Rocky Balboa playing the role of the US government and his opponent, Ivan Drago, anthropomorphizing the Soviet Union. The film became a source of national pride. And since its release, its nationalistic parallels continue to ring true to this day – with Rocky continuing as the US and Drago symbolizing al-Qaeda, Isis, or even Russia again, given the events of the past couple years.
Another significant part of “Rocky IV’s” success is its soundtrack – comprising a host of spirited rock anthems, led by the not-so-subtle patriotism of James Brown’s ‘Living in America.’ But it is the original score by Vince DiCola that inspired the film’s audience, and continues to vitalize audiences, thanks chiefly to the incredibly motivational ‘Training Montage,’ a cue that manages to rival ‘Gonna Fly Now’ in its capacity to musically assert pride, persistence, and strength.
Read on, as composer Vince DiCola celebrates thirty years of “Rocky IV,” the film and score that remain a source of patriotism and dignity for audiences of any generation.
“Rocky IV” was the third highest-grossing film of 1985 and the highest-grossing film of the “Rocky” series. How did you end up being hired for what has gone on to become such a culturally-relevant film?
My manager Robin Garb was executive music director on the film, and when Stallone had a falling out with Bill Conti Robin had the idea to feed me pieces of the script where music was most likely going to be needed and have me work up some musical themes and ideas. Then one day when Robin and Sly were alone and Robin knew he had Sly’s full attention, Sly asked Robin what they were going to do about the score, and Robin said, “Put these headphones on and have a quick listen to something.”
I think the first thing Robin played was our demo of ‘Training Montage,’ and Robin told me later that day that about 30 seconds into it Sly jumped out of his chair and said, “Who the &^#* is this???!!!” Robin told him it was me and Sly said, “You mean the same Vinnie who worked with my brother on the music to ‘Staying Alive?!’” Robin responded, “Yup… same guy,” and Sly said “Hire him immediately!” So there I was, on my way to scoring a “Rocky” sequel and trying to figure out how the hell I was going to do it!
Stallone was the biggest box office draw at the time. How was working with him as a director during this period, while knowing that, until this point, he’d only worked with Conti as a Rocky composer?
First of all, you must understand that this was my very first time scoring a movie, and the fact that it ended up being such a huge movie from such a popular franchise was really overwhelming to me at first.
I also have to admit to being a bit star struck. Although I came into contact with Sylvester Stallone a few times while working on “Staying Alive,” I knew I was going to be interacting with him a lot more on this project.
Secondly, for some reason the Conti issue didn’t concern me that much, especially because Sly wanted the direction of the music in general (songs and score) to be more rock-based than in previous “Rocky” movies. I felt confident going into the project that I could make some valuable musical contributions to the franchise, and almost from the time Robin told me his idea I began envisioning a concept of what the score would sound like.
This was also one of the first non-horror, non-sci-fi fourth entries in a film series. Was there any apprehension dropping into an Oscar-winning world of characters that everyone knows and loves (Russians excepted), as well as following the rich (also Oscar-winning) landscape of music created by Bill Conti?
Actually, the fact that the movie-going public had already become familiar with these characters made things a little easier for me in that I already had a blueprint from which to draw. And regarding Conti’s music, Sly made it clear from the start that he wanted the score to this movie to sound different from that of the previous films in the series. Also, the fact that I had the opportunity to demonstrate what I had in mind very early on in the process – along with Sly’s very positive reaction – gave me even greater confidence that the style I had envisioned for the score was spot on.
Did you ever speak with Conti about tips and tricks working with Stallone and “voicing” the Rocky universe?
The answer is no, I’m afraid. The only way Bill Conti factored into “Rocky IV” was that his manager requested a copy of my score to make sure I hadn’t plagiarized Bill’s music in any way.
Conti’s music had a very specific, local flavor that resonated with the blue-collar Everyman. Your music takes a broader, united, cultural approach that moves away from the “Philly sound.” How ironic is it that they hired a man from PA to do a score for the one entry in a Philly-rooted film series that doesn’t take place in PA?
Never thought of it that way but you’re right!
Did removing the franchise from Philly make it easier to score?
I don’t think so. Interestingly enough, I worked on “Rocky III” as a background vocalist on the song ‘Take You Back’ by Frank Stallone, so I was already familiar with the “Philly sound”.
“Eye of the Tiger” quickly became a worldwide phenomenon following the release of “Rocky III.” How did this play into your work in “Rocky IV?”
It was planned from the beginning that the majority of the “Rocky IV” soundtrack would consist of songs by major artists, but there was an opening for one additional vocal song. My good friends Ed Fruge (co-producer on the score with me) and Joe Esposito (Frank Stallone and I had collaborated with Joe on a few songs for “Staying Alive”) and I wrote the song ‘Hearts on Fire.’ We were very excited about how prominently the song ended up being featured in the film, and thankfully it made it onto the soundtrack with John Cafferty as the featured artist.
Your version of ‘Theme From Rocky’ has an amazing, infectious bass line that seems to really be an anchor connecting the 1970s origins of the character/films to the 1980s then-modern pop-centric world. How does one go about musically moving music from the 1970s into the 80s without losing authenticity?
I’ve always been a fan of an artist from the late 70’s/early 80’s named Gino Vanelli, and in fact when I came up with the bass line for my arrangement of the “Rocky” theme, I had Vanelli’s style very much in mind. Gino’s music featured a lot of keyboards (both Gino and his brother Joe are great keyboard players) and their bass lines were the best I ever heard relative to that style of music. I wasn’t really thinking in terms of 70’s versus 80’s.
Tell me about how Paulie’s birthday robot music came about. It’s quirky, fun, and relieves a bit of the tension in the bulk of the film.
That was a fun track to create! Of course, having the robot as the primary focus of that scene suggested a completely electronic approach, and because the dialogue in the scene is comedic, we had to make sure the cue had an element of humor to it. I’m not exactly sure why we ended up with three versions of this cue but I do think the one that ultimately made it into the movie was the best choice.
There is great purity in Adrian & Rocky’s love theme (‘Anniversary’). Was it difficult to do a love theme that isn’t “new love,” but “lasting love”? And did using bits of Conti’s music help work through that?
Bill Conti’s theme lends itself to a variety of approaches and it was easy to make a romantic cue out of it. I didn’t think in terms of “new love” versus “lasting love”, and I’m not sure I would’ve done anything differently had I thought in those terms. It was simply a scene about love. I was very happy with how prominently most of the score cues were featured… with the exception of this and one or two other softer cues. I’ve always felt the level of the music on the quieter stuff could’ve been a bit louder, so I’m very grateful that the score was finally released on its own.
Was it always the intent to make Drago sound more like a machine than man, musically?
The big difference between the Rocky and Drago characters was that Rocky was an ‘old school’ boxer using ‘old school’ methods for training and boxing, whereas Drago and his team utilized the latest technology, including machinery that even suggested a sort of science fiction concept. We all felt the music should reflect that difference.
There is no music during the exhibition fight until the “death punch.” Even then, it is very subtle and surreal, almost sound-designed. How did it feel to have to musically kill-off a beloved character? Did this set the plate for you when you had to do it again a year later with Optimus Prime?
I had learned about Apollo’s death from reading the script months before I started scoring the movie, and the piece I composed for that scene was included on the demo Robin played for Stallone initially. Having had a head start on all the music proved to be a major advantage for me. Reading about Apollo’s death was definitely a shock for me, as it would’ve been for anyone else familiar with the characters in the “Rocky” films.
Regarding your question about whether or not the “death punch” cue in ROCKY IV “set the plate” for the Optimus death scene in “Transformers: The Movie,” I would have to say no. The only musical connection between the music for “Transformers” and “Rocky IV” was that the stylistic approach I took for Drago was very similar to the approach I took for most of the Unicron-related music.
The training montage ended up being your music instead of another licensed song. It’s obviously one of most significant pieces of music in film. Do you think it might be one of the most significant pieces in your career? How did you put this together, and did you draw from your own tribulations to give it authenticity?
“Training Montage” has definitely turned out to be the most significant piece in my career to date. I did not consciously draw from anything in my own life when I composed the music for this cue, although certain times of challenge in my personal and professional life may have subconsciously factored into the creation of it. Also, the training scenes in previous “Rocky” films inspired me to write something special.
A majority of the music for “Rocky IV” was initially recorded on a Fostex 16-track recorder. After I was hired, we transferred everything to 24-track audio tape, assembled a band and hired synth programmer/sound designer Casey Young (Michael Jackson, Yes, etc.) to help us enhance and embellish the track.
Have you ever heard the metal band Northern Kings’ version of “Training Montage”?
I did hear that band’s version and loved it! Very powerful and true to the composition!
Regarding the John Cafferty song that ends the training sequence, “Hearts On Fire” – the man has very strong, recognizable voice, yet you are clearly able to be heard due to your unique keyboard style/sound. Was this a collaborative song?
John had nothing to do with the writing of ‘Hearts On Fire.’ He happened to be signed to the Scotti Brothers Records label at the time, and we all felt John’s voice would add a unique element to the track. The song was the result of a collaborative effort amongst Ed Fruge, Joe Esposito and myself.
Additionally, how did ‘Up The Mountain’ end up attached as the closer to the song? Was the song not long enough for the sequence in the film?
The scene where Rocky is climbing the mountain was always intended to come out of ‘Hearts On Fire’ with no separation between the two, and I had always intended for ‘Up the Mountain’ to take ‘Hearts on Fire’ to an even higher level of energy. I also seem to recall all of us feeling that this was a very effective place in the movie to incorporate the original “Rocky” theme.
“Rocky IV” closes with a reprise of ‘Hearts on Fire’ instead of another song or score. Was that always intended?
To be honest, I’m not really sure. I recall that we were all surprised and excited when he heard about that decision.
The only Christmas music in the film is The Chipmunks. Did you write any holiday-themed music for the film that ended up not being used?
No, although now that you mention it, I don’t know why!
There were a bunch of very strong synth-based scores in the mid-1980s. Were you ever intimidated to be bumping elbows (musically) with the likes of Harold Faltermeyer, Vangelis, Brad Fiedel, etc.?
Not really. I felt my musical style was very different from that of most other synth-based film composers of the day, and that I could make some unique contributions to the genre. At the time I was actually more interested in composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Dave Grusin (“On Golden Pond”, among others).
Do you remember the late fall/early winter of 1985? Were you nervous, excited for the film? (As a refresher, “Rocky IV” ultimately competed with “Out of Africa,” “The Color Purple,” and was released on the same day as “Santa Claus: The Movie,” which is regarded among the worst holiday films ever made.)
I was very nervous and excited! How would the public receive the film? And how would my music be received, especially considering this was the first “Rocky” movie in the series to be scored by someone other than Bill Conti?! I remember going to see the movie in Pennsylvania with my whole family, and that was a very surreal experience. My family erupted when my name appeared onscreen!
Rocky Balboa was already an icon, but he became almost a world hero in this film. Why do you think people needed this movie at the time?
Every generation has its own set of fears, even though each generation always thinks they have it worse than those of past generations. I think people of any generation will always need heroes, not only in books and film but in their personal lives as well. Although Rocky’s speech at the end of “Rocky IV” seemed a bit silly to a lot of people (especially when the president of Russia gave Rocky a standing ovation and insisted that the members of his cabinet and the audience do the same!), the lesson there was for every generation… We all need to try harder to get along. Amen to that!
Despite its incredible popularity, “Rocky IV” was the recipient of five Razzies, including one for Worst Musical Score. How does that sit with you?
Interestingly enough the same question was posted on my Facebook page more than a few times over the last year or so. My response was the following…
Fortunately I was warned by some of the crew and staff members that worked on “Rocky IV” to expect just about every element of the movie to get trashed in one way or another! Most of the films Stallone starred in around that time seemed to win multiple Raspberry awards! I admit to being a bit depressed when I first learned about the Raspberry award – no one ever wants to see their work being criticized so severely (and publicly!) – but I’ve received so much positive feedback on that score that helped offset any negative comments or criticism the score may have generated. As just one example… A soldier serving in Iraq at the time wrote to tell me he played ‘Training Montage’ before heading out on his missions because it pumped him up, motivated him to get out there and do his best and have faith that things would turn out OK for him and his fellow soldiers. Just one message like that (and I’ve received several of that nature) rendered all the negative attention my score received as meaningless and unimportant.
Lastly, what does “Rocky IV” mean to you?
Push yourself to the limit and beyond. Have faith, and practice that faith (I’m taking about spiritual more than religious faith, and there IS a difference). Especially during those times in your life when the odds are against you, pull out all the stops so you can look back with confidence and tell yourself you stayed the course to the best of your ability. Strive for greatness in everything you do.
On a more personal note, “Rocky IV” was the greatest career opportunity I’ve received to date, and the longevity of the film and my score continues to surprise and amaze me! Just when I think the attention is finally coming to an end, something happens that leads me to believe that interest in this film (and the “Rocky” series in general) may never come to an end! “Rocky IV” has been a true blessing in my life, and by extension my family’s lives as well.
Keep up with Vince DiCola on Facebook, Twitter and his official website.
The “Rocky IV” Original Motion Picture Score is available through Intrada Records on Amazon.
The “Rocky IV” Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is available through Sony/Legacy on iTunes, Amazon, and Amazon Digital.