Everyone, whether they’ve seen the movie or not, knows the Rocky theme. Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” manages to challenge Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Rocky Balboa for the title of the most iconic element of Rocky, both still relevant nearly 40 years after the film’s release. In under 10 seconds, the staccato horn fanfare builds empowerment for anyone that wants to use it. For that exact reason, it’s helpful both with and without the film’s context, giving athletes and the like motivation to push through whatever struggles line up in their way.
In this year’s Creed — the emotional seventh Rocky film that sees Rocky Balboa (Stallone) train Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), son of his old opponent Apollo Creed — the original Rocky theme is sliced up and left sputtering in the background of Future’s “Last Breath”. For containing such ripe fodder, his remake settles a bit without the film as context. “Last Breath” does reshape the sample into a new, self-assured backbeat, but, given it’s Future’s first release since DS2 and What a Time to Be Alive, it suggests he propped his feet up in the aftermath of chart-topping success. There’s a chorus too generic to feel personal (“I got angels all around me/ I got love all around me/ I’ll be a fighter ’til the end, til my last breath/ I’ma hustle ’til my last breath”) and monetary achievements as yardsticks (Moët & Chandon, safe-locked jewelry, a Rolls-Royce Wraith) instead of, you know, familial revenge, steadfast passion, or the evolution of identity through sporting competition — all of which are justified in their own clichés, especially when delivered so genuinely in the film itself.
Then there’s “Waiting For My Moment”, the collaboration between Donald Glover, Jhené Aiko, Vince Staples, and the film’s composer, Ludwig Göransson. An orchestra wastes no time with the dramatics, punching up string sections and trombones clearly written to accent certain actions in a scene alongside Glover’s croon, but, without the film in front of us, it all feels a bit forced. The real highlight is Vince Staples’ verse on survival amidst poverty and police brutality, but when squished into a 30-second rally cry, it’s washed away.
That said, Creed’s soundtrack is by no means a waste. Tessa Thompson — who plays Bianca, a singer-songwriter Adonis falls in love with — holds three standout songs to her name here: “Breathe”, “Grip”, and “Shed You”. By acting within the film, Thompson creates a distinct relationship with her songs, treading some unexplored middle ground between SBTRKT and FKA twigs with clear weight. Her brooding additions boast dark, looming, downtempo electronic production reminiscent of Nigel Godrich, and by the time Moses Sumney joins her on “Shed You”, their joint vocal allure transforms into the sonic embodiment of lust. Should she choose to pursue it, Thompson has a future in music.
While there’s no arguing that the soundtrack’s best cuts are well-placed songs from years past — stretching as far back as the ‘70s in the case of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody” or nabbing Nas’ 2004 number “Bridging the Gap” — recent additions like Meek Mill’s “Lord Knows” and remix favorite “Don’t Waste My Time” by Krept and Konan keep the hustle high without dropping boxing specifics. That, it turns out, is the key. If you don’t box but you’re writing a song to motivate someone who does, there’s a different type of fire beneath your feet. Your own drive comes though. When songs like “The Fire” by The Roots come on, an entirely familiar motivation bubbles up from within, lending itself towards a wide range of situations; the only songs on Creed’s soundtrack to get your arms swinging with revenge are those that allow that space to fit things into your own context. In comparison, Future’s big single misses the mark because it gets into specifics, using monetary prizes to fuel boxing stamina.
Sports dramas track rises and falls worth knowing. Their soundtracks serve as motivation to make our own. Creed stuffs a sampling of top hip-hop tracks into one bundle that get that very job done, but the songs written exclusively for the film (with the exception of Thompson’s) are the ones that feel the least inspired — and there was plenty to be inspired by. In the film, Göransson’s score stirs a dark underbelly with warm tones, harnessing strings in a way that should inspire future sports films to do the same, not unlike his work on 2013’s Fruitvale Station. But soundtrack albums are for those seeking to relive the film’s emotions. Maybe that highlights the film’s achievements even moreso: Creed is such a knockout of a film that it doesn’t need a stacked original soundtrack to raise it up — though that certainly wouldn’t have hurt.
Essential Tracks: “Shed You”, “Lord Knows”