Stuck, Ch. 2. I’m a Man: Bill Conti, “The Theme to Rocky”

by Akim Reinhardt

Stuck is a new weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. A Prologue can be found here. A table of contents with links to previous chapters can be found here.

Image result for toothpickI was always a skinny fuck. Forever the thinnest kid in the class, and for a longtime the second shortest boy (thank you, David Mehler). My stick-figure proportions were the thing of legend. I could suck my stomach in so far that some people swore they could touch the inside of my spine. My uncle used to refer to me as the Biafra Boy, a tasteless reference to the gruesome famine that accompanied the Nigerian Civil War (1967 – 70). In an effort to fatten me up, my grandmother would serve me breakfast cereal with half-and-half instead of milk. It was to no avail. A growth spurt in the 8th grade got me well above the short kids, but my body didn’t fill out. I graduated high school standing five feet, nine and a half inches tall, and weighing less than 120 pounds.

I went away to college. The so-called Freshman Fifteen, which many new students pack on when given access to unlimited cafeteria food, was only a fiver on me. And it melted away during my sophomore year. All through my 20s, the tape continued to read 5’9½” and 120 lbs.

To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone naturally skinnier than I was back then. The only few I ever did meet were all very determined and unhealthy. But me? Just my natural and inexorable state of being. I didn’t overeat, but I certainly didn’t eat healthy. Pizza and fast food made up a shocking share of my diet. Cooking at home was rare and it rarely got beyond ramen or mac n cheese. I could be very active, or I could lay on the couch for months. Didn’t matter. Five-nine and a half, a buck-twenty.

Being naturally skinny certainly has its perks. It’s easier to slither through crowds. You have what it takes to be the undefeated Twister champion. It simply never occurs to you not to eat something. And while I can’t know for sure, I suspect it beats being fat. Particularly when I was growing up, fat kids were rarer than they are now and routinely and ruthlessly tormented, both physically and psychologically, by their svelter peers.

But then again, it’s not all pizza and sunshine. To this day, I’ll be damned if I can find a shirt that fits properly. And to be a skinny boy presents its own set of challenges. You quickly learn that most of the other boys can beat you up. This prospect looms particularly large when you’re a mouthy little bastard in the Bronx, like I was. Good thing I was also faster than most of them.

As boys move into their teenage years, they struggle to understand and define themselves as “men.” Some of it’s as inevitable as it is mysterious. Your voice drops. Pimples erupt. Peach fuzz sprouts. Ooops, the sheets. But a lot of it is what your culture and society tell you is masculine. And in 1980s America, that shit was Rambo.

Huge biceps straining as you brace a .50 caliber machine gun across your forearm, ripping off shots into the bamboo fortress of your enemies.

The first movie to feature Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo was 1982’s First Blood. It was about a Vietnam vet who has trouble fitting back into American society after the war. The bad guys were redneck cops in the Pacific Northwest who fear, mock, and harass this pained and misunderstood war hero. So he blows up their whole precinct.

But in Ronald Reagan’s gung ho America, complicated messages about the mistakes we made in Vietnam, and the social rifts they widened, were bothersome unpleasantries to put behind us. Three years later, Rambo was back. The military springs him from prison (he sure did maim and kill a lotta cops in that first movie) and dangles a pardon in front of his nose if he’s willing to take up a mission. Go blow up a bunch a shit in Vietnam and rescue dozens American POWs who, beyond all credulity, have been working in forced labor camps over there for a quarter-century. John Rambo’s famous response in accepting the offer: “Do we get to win this time?”

Apparently, the only reason we lost the Vietnam War is because those draft-dodging hippies and chicken shit politicians wouldn’t let us win.

I saw that film in the theater. I was 17. I was unimpressed. The premise was silly and Stallone was pathetic. To be honest, my sense of manhood was in no way shaped by the dumb machismo of Rambo II or III.

But Rocky? That’s another story.

It’s almost impossible to imagine now. Sylvester Stallone, the same “Sly” Stallone who later made a slew of god awful action movies including, but hardly limited to, four Rambo sequels, and seven, count ‘em, seven(!) fucking Rocky sequels plus two Apollo Creed’s son movies, actually wrote and starred in a film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

I mean, Jesus, do I have to remind you about the time Stallone wrote and starred in Over the Top, a touching underdog drama about a widowed truck driver named Lincoln Hawk (I am not making this up) who overcomes long odds and a brutal arm injury to win an the World Arm Wrestling Championship as a way of proving to his manhood to and winning the love of his estranged 10 year old son, a boy who doubts him because he’s been spoon fed lies while living with his wealthy but evil maternal grandfather, but when the boy finds out the truth, he steals one of grandpa’s pickup trucks and drives to Vegas just in time to watch his dad win the tournament, and the two of them ride off into the sunset happily ever after in the brand new semi they got when Hawk wins the tournament?

Actually, I’m kinda jealous. I’ve published multiple books, but I wish I could make up something that insane.

Anyway, the point is, despite what might seem like an absolute impossibility if you simply read a list of Stallone’s films in reverse order, the first Rocky movie is genuinely excellent. And when I was on the cusp of puberty, it fired this skinny little kid’s aspirations of muscular masculinity.

For Chanukah, the same uncle who teased me for being skinny gave me a modest little weight set. One bar and a couple of 10 lb. weights. I had no interest. It just sat there in the box, under my bed for several months. Until one night when Rocky came on TV.

By the time the movie neared its rousing climax, my parents and sister were long asleep. I was glued to the set. Could this outmatched, tortured underdog overcome? The gray sweat pants and high top Chucks. The gruff, half-deaf old trainer who deserves this shot more than Rocky himself, and who has to pull every trick out of the bag to get the kid’s body and mind into shape. The one weird little woman who understands and loves him, despite her violent, insecure, alcoholic brother making a mess of everything. The legendary workout routines with frozen sides of beef and palatial museum steps. Rocky’s boxing shorts, painted the wrong color on the enormous promotional poster hanging from the arena’s rafters. The charismatic, world famous champ in the opposite corner, a fictional Muahammad Ali stand-in and overwhelming favorite whom he doesn’t even belong in the ring with. Can Rocky Balboa, a former low level mob enforcer and club fighter, actually pull off the upset of the century and conquer the undefeated Apollo Creed?

Fuck no.

He’s willing to do anything. He takes punch after punch. His face so swollen he can’t see, he begs Mick to cut his eyelid and let the blood out. But it’s not enough. When the judges’ cards come in, it’s a draw.

But it’s also the greatest victory Rocky could ever imagine. All he wanted was to still be standing on his feet when the final bell rang. He calls out for Adrienne, the only person who matters anymore, and she frantically jostles through the crowd to find him. He didn’t even win the fight yet it’s his ultimate dream come true.

Image result for philadelphia museum of artWhen it was over, I ran to my room, full of adrenaline and inspiration, pulled out that barbell, and started pounding curls. I was gonna be somebody. I was gonna chase my dream. I was finally gonna have pectoral muscles.

The next day I lost interest. I remained the skinniest kid in the class.

I don’t have cable tv. I got fed up with those monsters at Comcast and pioneered cord-cutting back in 2003. I don’t know what goes on anymore. But I was at a friend’s house and some channel or another was celebrating our nation’s war dead with a Memorial Day weekend binge of all the Rocky films. And that’s how the theme song and some other choice cuts from the first soundtrack got stuck in my head.

Sometimes when music is rattling around my skull, quite understandably I suppose, I go ahead and play it. Not a lot. Too much would be some sort of torture. It’s more like popping a couple of aspirins; just enough to take the edge off.

But god damn it, I can’t listen to the music from Rocky without tearing up.

No, not tearing it up, like the Italian Stallion in the midst of an epic workout. Tearing up. As in big globes of salty water welling up in my eyes.

For fuck’s sake.

Is it because the music’s so stirring? Or is it because the film’s so uplifting? I guess it’s not either/or. It’s both.

I think it’s safe to say that no soundtrack has ever meant more to a conventional feature film than Bill Conti’s music means to the original Rocky. The images on the screen are so intimately connected to the accompanying overtures that it’s difficult to imagine one without the other.

It’s true that many movies would feel a bit naked if you removed the musical score; music often dresses a scene, shaping the mood and adding color. But Conti’s music goes far beyond that. In Rocky’s most entertaining and pivotal moments, the music is the star as much as Stallone or any of the other actors. I love the performances by Burgess Meredith (Mick) and fellow Bronx native Burt Young (Pauly). But nothing can trump that flourish of trumpets.

Ever since my first viewing of the original Rocky when I was about 13 years old, it’s been Conti’s music more than Stallone’s muttering and grunting that makes me feel like I could walk through a wall. It’s the opening fanfare that sets the tone, signaling a calm but urgent call to arms. It’s the Disco-inflected “Rocky’s Theme (Gonna Fly Now)” that makes me want to drink raw eggs (even though I’m allergic to raw eggs), put on some grimy sweats, and run through the dusky streets of South Philadelphia until I double over in pain. And it’s the bells, drums, and horns of “Going the Distance” and “The Final Bell” during Rocky’s crippling fight with Apollo Creed and its bloody aftermath in Adrienne’s arms that allow me to believe I would make absolutely any sacrifice in exchange for nothing more than a moment of true love and happiness. That while I may not deserve my longshot chance at life’s great dream, if fate ever deigns that it should cross my path, I will cast all else aside, put my shoulder firmly into the wheel of fate, and strain mightily until one of us must finally turn away.

I mean, in reality I’m just gonna sit on the couch and eat Funyuns. But if Rocky’s on TV and Bill Conti’s music is playing, I’m gonna believe all that stuff and cry.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is