Music in the movies: Bill Conti

In this week’s Music in the movies, Glen salutes the fine work of Bill Conti, whose work has graced the Rocky and Karate Kid franchises...

Bill Conti’s compositions seemed to dominate the Rocky and The Karate Kid movies, which I watched frequently when I was younger. Conti is a composer that I have long admired, and I’ve been keen to write about him since I started this column. So below is my take on the two franchises that he is most renowned for, as well as a couple of his other excellent scores.

The Rocky series

Conti’s theme for Rocky will no doubt be the one he’s remembered for. A theme so iconic that it is as integral to the series as the presence of Stallone himself. If you were to buy just one score from the series, the one that accompanies the original would be the best purchase, as it’s the one that really focuses on the fantastic work by Conti rather than adding sourced material of varying quantity.

Given the quality of the score, it’s amazing to think that it was one of the first major pieces he had composed, and one that showed such a level of understanding of the material, knowing exactly when to enhance the emotional impact, and when to pull back and opt for subtler cues using simple piano motifs. I’m sure, at the time, few would have expected Rocky to become the success that it did, with awards season recognition and a number one single in the form of Conti’s Gonna Fly Now.

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His follow up score for Rocky II just falls short of the original for me. Cues such as Vigil and the children’s choir version of Gonna Fly Now are strong additions to themes explored in the first outing, and sure, it plays on the emotions a bit more and amps up the rousing pieces when necessary, but its predecessor sits better as a cohesive score for me.

Rocky III was the point where Conti’s score got sidelined to an almost ridiculous degree, which was surprising, given the huge role his music had provided in shaping the titular character.

Here, we’re treated to some slightly poor songs from Sly’s brother Frank Stallone, but on the good side, we also got Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger, which I won’t have a bad word said against. The score itself is a reworking of previous themes, but largely, that’s preferable to the alternative presented.

I think, at some point, there’s going to have to be an article in this series on some of the worst ‘songs inspired by’ soundtracks that have accompanied films over the years, and some of the music from Rocky V would almost certainly feature. After an eight-year hiatus from the franchise (he skipped the fourth instalment altogether), Conti returns to his rightful place as composer for the film, but presumably, as only slight variations were made to key motifs, the studio saw fit to fill the soundtrack with sub-standard hip hop. Presumably just not bothering with a soundtrack release wasn’t an option.

Watching Rocky Balboa is a bit of a strange experience. Parts of it are good (punching meat), but others are staggeringly awful (pretty much all of the dialogue, plot points). Still, it’s far superior to Rocky V, so that’s gotta be a good thing, right? Conti returned to update many of the themes that we all got to know and love throughout the franchise, and the update is really quite strong.

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He only wrote one new theme to act as a leitmotif for the character Marie, and sure, there’s the obligatory song from Frank (damn you, Frank!), as well as other sourced material, but with the official soundtrack release acting as a kind of best-of for the series, it was always going to be a winner.

For Your Eyes Only

Replacing John Barry would be a tricky proposition for any composer. For all intents and purposes, Barry was Bond more than any other person attached to the cinematic franchise, so when they decided to ditch him and bring in Conti instead, the results weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

Sure, his score here isn’t up there with the best of Barry’s work, but conversely, it’s not down there with the worst either. It’s very much a product of the 80s, and it hasn’t dated particularly well, but there’s a certain charm to it, as it opts for a mixture of symphonic pomp and synth pop.

The Karate Kid series

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The second series to feature compositions by Conti, and really played a prominent role in my youth, the music from the The Karate Kid is probably best known to many for Joe Esposito’s song You’re The Best (and smashing it is too), but as with the Rocky series, the musical and emotional heart of the film was carried by its rather fantastic score.

In fairness, Conti is on familiar ground here, what with it being about an underdog going up against a far more experienced opponent, and broadly speaking, The Karate Kid hits similar plot points as Rocky, so thematically, the scores carry similarities. However, Conti peppers the score with eastern instrumentation to draw out the discipline taught to Daniel by his teacher, Mr Miyagi.

Conti has gone on record stating that his score isn’t based on any detailed research of musical approaches from that area. Rather, he simply chose to use certain instruments and stick to his method of composing, and the results are rather effective.

Through four instalments, Conti stuck fairly rigidly to the formula, adding a sense of familiarity to proceedings, and as with Rocky, subtle changes were made along the way to give each piece a sense of identity. Good luck tracking down the scores to the films, though, as the four disc set released by Varese Sarabande was limited to 2,500 copies.

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Conti’s score for this ace 1987 James L Brooks movie acts as an interesting comparison point to the works he is most famous for. Gone are the rich orchestrations and dramatic passages, and in comes light and touching pieces that have a humorous edge. Conti never overplays his hand here, demonstrating an incredible level of restraint and understanding of the material.

It’s not the type of score that will appeal to mass audiences, but as a piece of composing for the purpose of serving the material, it really is a fantastic piece of work.