In 1976 an upstart American actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone introduced Rocky Balboa to Hollywood. Rising from humble Philadelphia roots the Italian Stallion has time and again returned to the screen as a symbol of determination, perseverance, and heart. That the Rocky franchise is alive and well today with Creed II speaks to the love fans have for its abiding integrity and emotional relevance. Continuing the legacy is Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son to Apollo Creed, now the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, with Stallone reprising his role as a more sedentary but wholesome Balboa. Creed II is the eighth film of the series, directed by Steven Caple Jr. who took over for Ryan Coogler - director of the first Creed - and joined once again by composer Ludwig Göransson. Had I not read about the change-up in director I am not sure I would have noticed. The tone between Creed films has been meticulously well-maintained, assisted enormously by Stallone's contributions as writer/producer, the superb acting, and Göransson's return. A long-time producer for Childish Gambino and rising star in film music, there was no better choice of composer for the continuation of this series. It was first brought to my attention by my friend Vikram that Göransson is experimenting with film music at lengths that no one has gone to before. His experience in both Hollywood and the wider music industry has given him the option to seamlessly integrate conventional film scoring with hip-hop, R&B, and rap, creating a genre blend that speaks to the musical zeitgeist of our day. More than just dropping a hit song into the film Göransson actually brought artists into the recording studio to work with the orchestra and craft cues that defy definition within any particular musical style by expressing various styles simultaneously. At the same time, the composer has done a marvelous job of restoring the '70s instrumentation and style enlisted by composer Bill Conti for the original Rocky. The blaring, triumphant brass and riveting strings with underlying jazz and funk rhythms, plus mellow piano for the more delicate moments, are unmistakable. He is successfully tapping into both the culture of Rocky and the culture of Creed, showcasing a fusion of modern Philly society and age-old values. Said Göransson, “I’m just constantly figuring out new ways to reinvent myself. And if it’s combining ’70s jazz with Puccini and 808 drums, I’ll try that.” The score reacquaints us early on with the theme Göransson wrote for Adonis in the 2015 Creed as he stakes his claim for the world title ("Wheeler"). Similar to Conti's anthemic approach to "Gonna Fly Now", "Fighting Strong" is an underdog piece, moving with steady, confident triplet motion and rising, fanfare gusto to meet every challenge head on. The melody after which the song is named makes its appearance beside the first half of the theme during the classic montage sequence of both Creed films, where Adonis must push himself further than he has ever gone. But more on this later. (The B-flat harmony in the third measure of Creed's theme only appears at the end as a victory harmony).
A new theme for the Russian tank, Viktor Drago, son to the infamous Ivan Drago of Rocky IV, plays heavily into the score, making its first appearance at the top of the film on a picked acoustic guitar ("Drago"). The theme, as well as the character, has some impressive sense of subdued shame, weaving its way through the defeated circumstances of Ivan and his son. A fresh ballad is also introduced for the Russians just prior to the final match in Moscow ("Drago's Walk Out"), followed by a powerful statement of the Drago theme as the family stakes its claim on the world title once more.
Certain familiar textures found their way back into the score from the previous Creed as well. These include the moments shared between Adonis and his partner Bianca (Tessa Thompson), using glossy, light harmonies beneath an electric guitar to encourage their developing relationship, and a cured piano during Balboa's visits to the grave marker of his deceased wife Adrian. The cue is actually derivative of Bill Conti's "First Date" from the original, when the two hit it off and start seeing each other. Such attention to detail and reverence for those early moments only make Göransson's score stronger. It is worth noting too that the Bianca character is a musician by trade, and so Tessa Thompson actually recorded a couple of songs for the film ("Time Tick" and "I Will Go to War"). I would not call either a winner, but the endeavor is commendable. Everything from the redemption montage to the climax of the film was astounding. The detached string motif to begin the montage ("Runnin"), channeling elements of the Rocky theme fanfare and added to with heavy percussion and dubstep, sets the perfect tone of determination as the character builds himself. This is also where the "Fighting Strong" melody makes its appearance, first taken up in the horn but soon after surrendering to the Drago theme when the montage focuses briefly on the opponent. The theme comes back on treble vocals, resolving on the upper octave to make way for artist A$AP Rocky, an excellent example of the genre blend that was mentioned prior. A$AP takes up a powerful "Amen" before the orchestra dives into a huge statement of Creed's theme and hardcore rap lyrics. Before the end the full choir bursts out on the melody, and frankly, had the film ended there it would have been enough. The brutal fight between Adonis and Viktor ("Fight in Moscow") trades from theme to theme before the deciding blow is struck and Adonis gains the advantage ("It's Your Time"). Here enters andantino trumpets on the Rocky fanfare in all their glory, soon followed by the Rocky melody itself, travelling through that classic, heartening string passage, and finishing with stunning counterpoint between Creed's theme and the "Gonna Fly Now" melody. With Creed II, Göransson has written an exceptional drama score, and he should be very proud of the music coming from his studio. Everything from the experimentation to the orchestration methods that improved on the first Creed were a success, and I will not soon forget cheering alongside fans in theatres at the flawlessly timed return of the Rocky theme.