Sylvester Stallone - Rocky

How to Write a Big Screen theme in five easy steps

Words: James Luxford
Images: YouTube/Wikipedia

Composer Bill Conti created music for Rocky, The Karate Kid and James Bond. Here, he reveals five tips for writing your own killer theme…

If you think about Rocky, chances are a certain piece of music will start playing in your head. The movie’s main theme, Gonna Fly Now, is as famous as any quote or montage, embodying the main character’s heroism and underdog spirit. Looking back on the film for its 40th Anniversary, composer Bill Conti confesses never really knowing if the story would work…

Scroll down for Bill’s five tips on how to write a classic movie theme…

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Gonna Fly Now: music to make you want to “punch someone in the face”.

© Wardrip06/YouTube

“We were having a screening of the movie, and we came in at the 9th reel, and sat down in the last row” he recalls. “We had not sat in from the beginning, so we don’t know the tenor of the room. Did they like it? Did they hate it? We had no feeling for it. Then, here comes the 10th reel, where he does his training, and the montage plays, and the audience jumps up screaming and yelling. The only people seated were Sly (Stallone), me, the director and the crew, in the back of the room. We looked at each other and didn’t know if they were cheering or leaving!”

You’ve got to make somebody cry, make somebody laugh, you’ve got to write the kind of music that makes people want to go out and punch somebody in the face…
Bill Conti

Bill Conti Rocky theme composer

Composing himself: Bill Conti at work.

© Nowhereman86/Wikipedia

It turns out they were cheering, along with audiences across the world for the past four decades. Conti’s theme has become an important part of both the Rocky franchise and the history of movies, and the Oscar winner still gets approached by people moved by his work.

“I have had letters from people who find that music inspirational… Barbara Streisand said to me ‘you know, I run every day to your tune’” he recalls, laughing. “It’s a blessing, it’s something that people give you, it’s not something you can count on. I’m a composer, that’s what I do, so it’s not surprising that I’m able to write a piece of music. It is surprising that it’s able to touch so many people.”

In addition to the Rocky films, Conti’s 50-year career has seen him compose the themes for TV show Dynasty, Sci-fi classic The Right Stuff, The Karate Kid and James Bond film For Your Eyes Only.

What’s the secret to making a legendary film theme? Here are his five top tips…

1. The music should transcend the film

Conti’s credits also include the theme to the iconic 1980s soap, Dynasty.

© ManicMindTrick/YouTube

“There have been good and bad pictures, but I’m only trying to do good music. The subjectivity of a bad movie is so up in the air, that I can’t get lost in my judgment of ‘is it going to be a hit?’ I have no idea. It might not be really, really good, but I think I can’t write really, really good music for it. I write music, that’s what I do.”

2. Include what you love about movie themes

“I draw on my own personal experience. Going to the movies in the 50s and seeing Gladiator pictures Ben-Hur, The Robe – all those films that moved me had fights that featured brass and drums. I loved all of that. So, I got to do (Rocky) and everyone was telling me ‘he’s a loser but deep down he’s got heart, he’s a warrior’ and I thought, ‘I know what I’m going to do here!”

The director would be foolish to not let another creative person get [their] creative idea out there…
Bill Conti

Conti’s score for The Right Stuff won him an Oscar at the 1983 Academy Awards.

© phildor06/YouTube

3. Stay true to the Director’s vision

“There’s always input from the director. Most of these projects begin with a writer – in this case Stallone – then they have pre-production, then production… by the time the film composer gets on the project they have definite opinions about what they’d like the music to be. In the case of Stallone, it was rather easy – he thought that it should be masculine and strong, give hope, all the things his movie and script were full of.”

4. …but stick to your guns when you have to

“If I think something is going work, and the producer or director says ‘I don’t think so’, I will say ‘let me try it, and then if you don’t like it I’ll do it your way’. I would force the issue, saying ‘I have to try this, I think this is really going to work’. And most of the time the director would be foolish to not let another creative person make the effort to get his creative idea out there.”

5. Be a crowd pleaser

“You’ve got to make somebody cry, make somebody laugh, you’ve got to write the kind of music that makes people want to go out and punch somebody in the face… You think of the Wagnerian stuff of Apocalypse Now, Flight of The Valkyries and all that, when it works it really moves people and in my case (Gonna Fly Now) has moved a bunch of people.”

The Greatest Boxing Ringwalk Songs double album is out now on Split Records.

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12/2016 The Red Bulletin

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