When they think of the word “hustle,” many envision a boxer’s triumphant jog up the 72 stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art – an iconic scene from Rocky carved into American history because of the accompanying song, “Gonna Fly Now,” by composer Bill Conti.
Forty years later, composer Ludwig Göransson revamps the orchestral opulence of the original with a Millennial brush to redefine that time-tested anthem of “hustle” for the soundtrack to Creed.
A personification of “hustle” himself, Göransson stands at the crossroads of two different music worlds.
Classically trained in jazz composition in Stockholm and in film score at USC, one of Göransson’s first gigs out of college was an assistantship under acclaimed composer Theodore Shapiro. Afterwards, Göransson scored the popular sitcoms Community, Happy Endings, and New Girl, as well as the Oscar Grant biopic, Fruitvale Station.
Featured as one of “15 New Producers to Watch For in 2014” by Complex Magazine, Göransson met Donald Glover on the set of Community and soon produced records on Childish Gambino’s albums Camp, Because The Internet, and STN / MTN. Göransson’s signature production can even be heard on Chance The Rapper’s “That’s Love” from Acid Rap and on the EP for pop-rock band Haim.
Film composer and music producer, Göransson’s blends modern influence with classic reverence, an assertion best supported by his landmark work on Creed.
A New Era, A New Theme
Every hero needs an anthem, and Adonis Creed is no exception – especially if he wants to eclipse the shadow of his father’s legacy.
To corner the best theme and score, Göransson and director Ryan Coogler reportedly began deliberating the music as early as January 2014, according to an interview with Pigeons and Planes. As Göransson explained on NPR’s “All Things Considered” in November 2015, one of the first steps to discovering that knockout sound was to go ringside – they reportedly spent a whole day in boxing sessions where Göransson collected audio samples from the live sounds of jump ropes and speedbags, which he later manipulated into beats to layer into the music.
From there, hooks like “Adonis’ Theme” were launched.
First heard in the opening scenes of Adonis’ troubled youth, the ten notes that comprise “Adonis’ Theme” drip like sordid raindrops in the song “Juvy.” Later, however, such as during the movie’s climactic clash between Creed and Conlon, the theme jolts the scene to life with blaring horns and an evocative chorus like a harbinger of the young boxer’s hustle.
In the same way that Conti manipulated “Gonna Fly Now” into different variations throughout the original Rocky score, Göransson integrates “Adonis’ Theme” throughout the film’s soundtrack. This delivers the same big, emotional impact that is felt throughout the original, but with a sound that definitively defines Adonis Creed and a new generation of viewers.
Something Borrowed, Something New
In the original Rocky soundtrack, Conti wove classical orchestra music with popular elements like disco drums and guitar solos. Similarly, Göransson applied his own production skills and incorporated new elements like driving 808s, lush synths, and hip hop collaborations to put his own stamp on the legacy of Rocky music.
One of the strongest examples of this is Adonis’ training scene – the Creed equivalent of Rocky’s 72 step ascension. Instead of a solitary sprint up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, Adonis jogs through the streets of Philly among a caravan of dirt bikes and ATVs as the song “Lord Knows / Fighting Stronger” pulses behind his journey.
“Adonis’ Theme” drives the song with a triumphant orchestral instrumentation and a hailing chorus, matching the tempo of Adonis’ deliberate footfalls between the rampant motorcade. Suddenly, cymbals echo like a boxing bell and the aggressive voice of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill barrages the score. Meek Mill raps a drilling verse over the ascending orchestra until both reach a climactic crescendo. Adonis’ panting breath joins the vehicles’ exhaust in the otherwise silent city of Philadelphia. The music gives way to the voice of L.A. singer-songwriter Jhené Aiko, who lightly hums “Adonis’ Theme” to highlight the boxer’s thrill as he rallies among his peers. A rousing chorus chants the lyrics “Fighting stronger” with the driving rhythm of the orchestra as Aiko’s voice runs like silk over it all.
“I’m incorporating a big, lush orchestra, but I’m also experimenting with my new production skills, and the elements I maybe use on a record instead of a typical organic orchestra score,” said Göransson in a December 2015 interview with Pigeons and Planes. “This score from Creed is me putting my own stamp on something. If people want to hear my voice, that’s where they can go.”
Fictional Singer, Actual Songwriter
The use of popular music wasn’t just important to the soundtrack to Creed, it was also an integral part of the story.
Actress Tessa Thompson starred as Bianca, Adonis Creed’s girlfriend and a rising star in Philadelphia’s indie music scene. Rather than typing her as a ringside cheerleader, Coogler ensured her music ambitions played a leading role in her character – a feat Göransson executed inimitably.
According to a November 2015 interview with Variety, Thompson began working with Göransson as soon as she was cast for the role of Bianca. Together, they wrote songs they thought Bianca – a young, independent artist in the heart of Philly – would actually be writing and performing if she was indeed a real artist on the make.
These songs could easily have been the breakout singles for a real-world artist, especially the sensual track “Grip.” Bass like heartbeats reverberate against a layer of synths as Thompson’s husky voice breaths the words in a primal purr. The song has already been streamed 120,000+ times on Spotify, Shazamed 3,500+ times since the film’s Thanksgiving day premiere, and viewed 35,000+ times on unofficial YouTube videos.
“Creating an EP for a fictional buzz-worthy artist is challenging, but knowing what Ryan had in mind for the character, Tessa and I were able to go into the studio as soon as she was cast,” Göransson said in a November 2015 interview with WeAreMovieGeeks.com. “We wrote and recorded about eight songs and Ryan chose his favorites for the movie. It was a very special experience for both Tessa and me because we could see and hear how Bianca came together her music.”
To further authenticate the experience, Göransson even starred as an instrumentalist in Bianca’s band in Creed, showing how far and above both the director and the composer were willing to go to deliver a haymaker of music strategy.
Two Brains, One Sound
A composer who knows how to blend classical orchestration, custom designed beats from found sounds, and current trends in popular music. A producer whose credits range from pop rock band HAIM to rapper/actor Childish Gambino. A storyteller who uses his music to build the characters of the film when words and image alone cannot suffice.
Ludwig Göransson went toe-to-toe with the music for Creed, from gathering sounds at an Oakland boxing gym to starring on-screen; this all-inclusive involvement is turning Göransson into the Adonis Creed of composing for film.
While his success is due in no small part to his own ingenuity and talent, something must be said of his friend, director, and collaborator, Ryan Coogler. Rather than delay music strategy until post-production, as too often happens in film and TV, Coogler delivered the script to Göransson very early on, according to a December 2015 interview with BlackFilm.com, which Göransson said gave them time to seriously contemplate the direction of the music. The relationship between the director and composer facilitated the discovery of a truly premier score, soundtrack, and sonic identity for Creed.
For a great composer to write a legendary score, he’ll need a director eager to collaborate. It would seem that Coogler and Göransson were more than excited to do just that. Now, the world of film music has a higher bar to scale, and the world of film fans has a new anthem to the word “hustle.”
By: Zach Miller, Music Dealers