In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s a moment in the 1976 movie Rocky where the film we’re watching stops being a product of the American new wave and where it transforms before our eyes into the future of cinema. That moment is the training montage. Up until the training montage, Rocky belongs within the ranks of the ’70s dramas that clearly inspired it. It’s a grey, ugly, slow-moving character study about a punchy, dimwitted lug. Rocky is a go-nowhere boxer and a small-time criminal. He can’t talk to girls. He yammers nervously, perpetually, in a slurry mutter of a voice. He’s a mess, and his life is not together at all. That’s why we like him. He’s a spiritual descendent of someone like Ernest Borgnine in Marty. But in the training montage, he becomes something else.
With Rocky, director John G. Avildsen more or less invented the training montage, a convention that would become a staple of American movies for about the next 20 years. (We still get training montages, but now they’ve become a self-conscious, parodic trope. Often, they still use the same music as the Rocky movies.) In Rocky, Rocky Balboa has randomly been booked in a fight with the champion of the world. He’s only in there because he has a good nickname, because he comes from the right city, because he’s white, and because he can’t possibly win. Rocky knows he can’t possibly win. But thanks to his hardbitten, motivational trainer, that starts to change. He starts to believe. And then the montage hits.
Rocky runs down the streets of his South Philadelphia hometown. He jaws with locals, tosses balls around. He does one-handed pushups, his sweat dripping on the mat of the practice ring. He punches speedbags. He punches giant slabs of frozen beef. He sprints along foggy docks. He runs up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, pausing for a moment of triumph and possibility, striking the iconic pose in the place where that fictional character’s statue now stands. And “Gonna Fly Now” plays.
When that montage happens, Rocky stops being an earnest and naturalistic ’70s white-ethnic urban drama. When the montage happens, the movie become myth. Rocky starts to understand that he can beat the unbeatable champ Apollo Creed, and that belief becomes reality. The scene doesn’t work unless “Gonna Fly Now” isn’t simplistically urging him on. As we watch Rocky, we can imagine “Gonna Fly Now” as the music in his head, as his own monosyllabic inner monologue. Rocky loses the big fight in the end, but he wins respect and becomes a contender. He achieves his destiny. A downbeat bummer of a story becomes a triumph for the ages, a harbinger of an era when movie ticket buyers demanded uplifting spectacle. “Gonna Fly Now” has everything to do with it.
Rocky wasn’t supposed to be a huge movie. Its star and writer, Sylvester Stallone, was a bit-part actor, someone who nobody took seriously. He knew he’s written a great script, and studios knew it, too. But Stallone had demanded to play lead in his own movie, and he had to fight for it; nobody thought he could act. So the underdog story of Rocky also became the underdog story of Stallone himself; his own backstory was key to the movie. It’s probably also why he didn’t have a big-name composer scoring it.
Bill Conti, like Stallone, is Italian American. He grew up in Miami, studied music in college, and eventually earned a masters from Juilliard. Conti started out as a film-score composer in 1969, but before Rocky, he only had a handful of credits on small films like A Candidate For A Killing and Harry And Tonto. Director Avidsen had wanted to hire Conti to score his 1975 Burt Reynolds comedy WW And The Dixie Dancekings, but the studio rejected the idea, since Conti wasn’t a name. A year later, Avidsen gave Conti another shot, at least partly because Conti came cheap. Years later, Avidsen told Philadelphia magazine:
When Rocky came along, nobody cared who was going to do the score. The budget for the music was 25 grand. And that was for everything: The composer’s fee, that was to pay the musicians, that was to rent the studio, that was to buy the tape that it was going to be recorded on. If a harp had to be used, it had to be picked up from a place and brought to us, we had to pay for the truck. Everything had to come out of the 25 grand.
Conti conducted all the music, as well as composing and arranging it, so that saved some money. And Conti’s music for Rocky is just magnificent. It’s heavy, swelling, inspirational stuff, and it’s got the Philadelphia soul of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff baked into its lush funk-guitar squelches and bongo ripples and dramatic strings. Even putting aside “Gonna Fly Now,” rap producers have been using Conti’s Rocky music as sample material for decades. Puff Daddy’s “Victory,” which peaked at #19 in 1998, is built on a sample from Conti’s Rocky score. So is T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” a song that will eventually end up in this column.
Originally, Rocky had a theme song from Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank. (Frank Stallone’s highest-charting single is 1983’s “Far From Over,” from the soundtrack of the Sylvester Stallone-directed film Staying Alive. “Far From Over” peaked at #10, and it’s a 4.) Nobody liked Frank’s song. So Conti got together with two songwriters, Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins, to come up with a new theme song. Connors and Robbins came up with the lyrics, though there are barely any lyrics. They’re practically just a chant: “Getting strong now! Won’t be long now!”
Connors, weirdly, was one of the first people ever to hit #1 on the Hot 100. She’d sung the lead vocal on the Teddy Bears’ Phil Spector-written 1958 hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him.” She didn’t get songwriting credit on that, but she did get it on “Gonna Fly Now” almost 20 years later. Life is weird.
“Gonna Fly Now” is only barely a song. It’s a masterful piece of film score that’s been stretched and elongated, forced to take song shape. Conti has said that Avidsen was driving him nuts by making the training sequence longer and longer, and you can sort of hear “Gonna Fly Now” as a stitched-together extended piece, something that maybe should’ve only been 45 seconds long. The real juice is in the opening: The crashing horn fanfare, the high strut of the beat, the ascending trill of the harp. After that, it’s not so exciting. Conti did a admirable job stretching it out, with that Latin-funk guitar solo and those constant tidal crescendos. But it can’t keep that effect going for three minutes. Three minutes is too much.
Still, in the context of Rocky, “Gonna Fly Now” absolutely works. That montage is a nakedly, unambiguously manipulative scene, one specifically put in there to convince us that Rocky has a chance in a fight that’s way beyond his capabilities. And that sequence does its job. As Rocky bounds up those steps an takes in the expanse of Philadelphia below him, it’s a goosebump moment as pure and true as anything in film history. That moment needs “Gonna Fly Now,” and “Gonna Fly Now” needs that moment.
Rocky was the highest-grossing movie and the Best Picture winner of 1976 — the movie that lived out the underdog triumph that Rocky itself did not grant Rocky Balboa. Four different versions of “Gonna Fly Now” charted: Conti’s original, as well as covers from jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, studio band Current, and “Theme From S.W.A.T.” chart-toppers Rhythm Heritage. Conti’s version wasn’t released as a single until February 1977, after the movie had already been out for months, and it didn’t top the charts until July; I have no idea why. Conti, Connors, and Robbins were nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. (They lost to “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born.”)
That same year, Conti served as musical arranger of the Oscars telecast, a job he’d return to perform again and again. Conti has been musical director at the Oscars 19 times, more than anyone else. The mind boggles to imagine how many tearful winners Conti has cut off mid-speech. And Conti himself became a winner a few years after Rocky, winning Best Original Score for his work on the 1983 astronaut drama The Right Stuff. He deserved it.
Conti kept working for decades. He scored all of the Rocky films up to 2006’s Rocky Balboa. He scored the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only when regular Bond composer John Barry wouldn’t do it. He scored The Big Chill and The Karate Kid and Broadcast News and Masters Of The Universe. He wrote theme songs for TV shows: Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Cagney & Lacey, Inside Edition, American Gladiators.
Conti never returned to the charts, which only makes sense. Film-score composers usually don’t have chart runs. But the genre he perfected sure did. “Gonna Fly Now” is not the last training-montage song that will appear in this column. It’s not even the last training-montage song from a Rocky movie.
BONUS BEATS: “Gonna Fly Now” has scored many, many tongue-in-cheek parodic training-montage scenes in movies and TV shows over the years. The first of those was probably in 1983’s Mr. Mom. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Dozens of rap producers have sampled “Gonna Fly Now” over the years. The best-known “Gonna Fly Sample” is the one on Brand Nubian’s classic 1992 head-knocker “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down.” Here’s that song’s video:
(Brand Nubian don’t have any top-10 hits. Their highest-charting single, the 1998 reunion song “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” peaked at #54.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the weirdly satisfying bit from the 2010 film Jackass 3D where Bam Margera punches wet and unsuspecting friends in the face, in extreme slo-mo, while “Gonna Fly Now” plays:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Creed, Ryan Coogler’s truly excellent 2015 Rocky quasi-sequel, admirably holds back on “Gonna Fly Now.” When Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed gets his own big training montage, it’s set to a remix of Meek Mill’s “Lord Knows,” and it fucking rules:
(Meek Mill’s highest-charting single is the 2019 Drake collab “Going Bad,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 7.)
And when the “Gonna Fly Now” horn fanfare finally shows up during the final Creed fight, I just lose it. Here’s that scene: