Saturday, December 26, 2015

We Listen to Music with Our Muscles: A Case for the Movie "Creed"

If there's one thing students enjoy, it's free choice.

I let that spirit underscore a movie project I reassigned in Sports and Spirituality. I suppose it was more of a "forced choice," in that the movies they were able to watch were the three films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Can you name them? (answer at the bottom) and then I rounded it out with three movies featuring three different sports. It was exciting for me to learn what films my seniors were drawn to. The most popular choice was  the greatest of all boxing movies, Rocky. They were happy to have the opportunity to sit down and watch the 1976 masterpiece, written by Sylvester Stallone.

When we learned that the legend of Rocky lives on in the release of "Creed," we could hardly believe our good fortune. The conversation continues! It should.  As written in Sports Illustrated,
Creed may be, in essence, Rocky VII, but director Ryan Coogler's dynamic richly textured film is thrillingly fresh, full of speed and pop. As Adonis Johnson, son of Rocky's late friend and rival Apollo Creed, the impressively athletic Michael B. Jordan displays a real fighter's blend of grit and gentleness.
A number of students caught the movie upon its release over the Thanksgiving break. They were divided on how good it is. If there's one reason it's worth viewing, I think it's because of the role that music plays in the film. Music helps to tell the story in its own way. It's so rich in symbolism, that I have continued to think more about it. Here are few thoughts.
Adonis Johnson (Creed) leaves security, a job, family and a home in Los Angeles to train and fight where his deceased father once did—Philadelphia. The dramatic shift from the safety of his adopted mother's palatial estate in Bel Aire to a high rise apartment in tough part of Philly is underscored by the urban sounds of hip-hop music.

A life-long country music fan, when I lived in south, rural Louisiana, I thought that country music sounded better. It felt more authentic. I should have, I truly lived in the country. The message of this music—powerful, at times ridiculous, honest and open reflected the way of life I was surrounded by: trucks and tractors, beer, bad boys and beautiful women. Creed isn't much different. It gains ground as the boxing gyms and streets of Philadelphia become Johnson's home. The beats of rap, hip hop and new music by the composer, Ludwig Goransson.

In his own apartment, Johnson is disturbed by the music that blasts from the one below him. When he can no longer take it, he bangs on the door of the perpetrator, only to discover the source of the noise is a beautiful woman. Bianca, is a musical artist who creates and performs her own music. 
The role of music is tremendously symbolic in the relationship that develops between them. That which was once a total nuisance later serves a mechanism for how Johnson sees Bianca again. He is drawn to her concert, he learns about her world and who she is in what she does. And the irony continues, as when Johnson asks why she is wearing hearing aids, Bianca reveals that she is losing her hearing. She confides that she is not afraid—rather she wants to make the most out of what she can do right here, right now. Her fortitude speaks to Adonis on a much deeper level as he continues to struggle with who he is. He is reluctant to be known as Apollo Creed's son; he is unwilling to let go of his former identity and grow into a new one. Bianca, shows him another way.

Nietzche once wrote that "music is pure form." Every Rocky movie includes a training montage and Creed is no different. I don't know what athlete doesn't revel in these moments. I am forever inspired to work harder, run faster, and get stronger when the moments arise. In Creed, Adonis Johnson becomes Adonis Creed through his commitment to adopting pure athletic form. The music—pure form—used in Creed conveys that desire as it becomes reality—pure athletic form. 
The story continues to build as Adonis travels to Liverpool to fight Pretty Ricky Conlon. Although there is a musical climax that transpires amid bikers and another run through the very streets where Rocky ran in South Philadelphia, I believe one my favorite moments is an unexpected one before the fight begins.

Adonis has entered the ring and is standing nearly alone. He raises his arms and accepts the struggle that awaits. "Hail Mary" by 2Tac underscores his footwork and his mission. I don't know a ton about his music, but to me, his voice is haunting; it's so powerful. And so is this moment.

And yet, in spite of the new and fresh beats, the genius of crafting the old with the new, the very next scene let's the work of Rocky's musical composer—Bill Conti—flood the screen. It makes the movie soar. It did in 1976 and it does the same in 2015.

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler said "We needed it. But we needed it in a way that didn't take away from Adonis' own theme, from Adonis' own story. We felt like the movie had to earn those Conti sounds."
How important are those Conti sounds? NPR asked Oscar winning director John Avelton. "Without it, I don't think we'd be talking about Rocky or Creed or anything else. Imagine the movie without that music?"  Sorry, I don't want to.
In "Why the Creed Soundtrack is so Damn Good," Joshua Rivera writes,  But what's also interesting is that once-common musical ideas like motif have fallen out of fashion—when was the last time you saw a movie with a theme you could hum? The sort of instantly recognizable, heroic melody that has accompanied and elevated films like Rocky, or, hell, Star Wars, just doesn't happen as often anymore, and in that way, Creed's score is kind of a throwback. But it's a throwback that's full of so much that's new. Like hip-hop. movie Creed's use of rap in its soundtrack is innately tied to why boxing movies are so damn satisfying. Again, Creed is very much about legacy, about stepping outside of it and forming your own before coming to embrace the name your were born with, and similarly, a lot of rap is about self-mythologizing—building your own legend, loudly telling yourself the story the world will repeat when they can't ignore you any longer. It's about nobodies challenging kings just because they can. It's about having your back against the wall with everything against you and swinging back with your meanest verse.
Nietzsche also wrote, “We listen to music with our muscles." I left Creed feeling as though I undertook a 2 hour workout. I now understand why. And like the runner's high that I miss after a great one, a viewer will find a similar one in the music and story of this holiday film. Enjoy.

Photo Credits
In So Philly
Punching Bag

with Bianca
Final Fight

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