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How the training montage became a miniature artform

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Oscar night, so we thought this would be a good time to pay homage to a convention of modern movies. It can be traced back to the original "Rocky," the Academy Award-winner for best picture in 1977. I am talking about the training montage. It's still going strong in the latest and ninth installment of the "Rocky" franchise, "Creed III," which is in theaters now. Tim Greiving has the history of this art form in miniature.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: It's a freezing cold Philadelphia morning. Rocky Balboa wakes up at the crack of dawn, gulps down a glass of raw eggs bundles up in his drab sweat suit and Chuck Taylors and heads out to begin his run in the train yards. In reality, this is probably a miserable workout. But in a training montage, it becomes movie magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CONTI SONG, "GONNA FLY NOW")

BILL CONTI: So what's interesting about the training? Well, not much. But could there be a story in the story?

GREIVING: Bill Conti composed the score for "Rocky" in 1976. He says director John G. Avildsen came to him with, quote, "10 miles" of just raw footage of Sylvester Stallone jogging, punching a medicine ball, doing one-handed pushups and boxing slabs of beef.

CONTI: John Avildsen says, Bill, give me about a minute and a half's worth of music so I can cut something together. Minute and a half of just boring training should be enough to get me started.

GREIVING: Conti took his main "Rocky" theme, which we've heard more slowly and wearily earlier in the picture...

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CONTI SONG, "PHILADELPHIA MORNING")

GREIVING: ...And made it more athletic, more aspirational.

CONTI: Music that you're train to, so everybody knows what that is. In (inaudible) days, you put on that jump-around music and listen to some guy in pink shorts telling you to jump higher and faster.

GREIVING: He recorded his idea on piano and gave the tape to Avildsen and the editors.

CONTI: Give me the one running. Where's the punching bag? The punching bag doesn't fit as good as the - do the medicine ball. OK. How many miles of this can we take? But then you hear in the music - oh, the music changes here. Let's go here. Let's go there. He's running. Oh, I like the running up the stairs. Oh, leave that for last.

GREIVING: As Avildsen cut the montage together, it began to form a miniature story of overcoming adversity, to the point where Rocky is practically taking flight at the top of the stairs leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Avildsen kept making it longer, asking Conte to write 30 more seconds of music, then 30 more seconds until the final sequence was about three minutes long.

CONTI: He says, well, look, it's like he's getting stronger during the whole thing. Can't we say that? I said, well, John, it's your movie. You can say it if you want.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GONNA FLY NOW")

DEETTA WEST AND NELSON PIGFORD: (Singing) Getting strong now.

GREIVING: This Frankenstein sequence, powered by the heroic "Rocky" theme and backed with a '70s disco rhythm, became an iconic part of the Oscar-winning film. And every "Rocky" movie since has had a training montage. "Rocky III" opens with the Italian Stallion on a winning streak and getting soft with fame as his nemesis, Clubber Lang, played by Mr. T, trains to take down the champ. Stallone, who by now was directing the "Rocky" movies, phoned up Jim Peterik of the band Survivor.

JIM PETERIK: He was already my hero. You know, my wife and I, we named our cat Rocky because we liked those first two movies so much. He says, well, I got this new movie called "Rocky III." And I don't want to use that "Gonna Fly Now" song again, you know? I want something for the kids, something with a pulse. Can you help me out?

GREIVING: This time, the montage was already cut together when Stallone sent Peterik a rough cut on Betamax.

PETERIK: And, you know, we see Mr. T rising up, you know, looking really tough - you know? - and Stallone doing Master Charge commercials and getting a little soft. And I just was feeling the pulse of that, you know? And I just started going (playing guitar). You know, just like that. And I see the punches being thrown, and I was just kind of (playing guitar).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE OF THE TIGER")

SURVIVOR: (Singing) It's the eye of the tiger. It's the thrill of the fight. Rising up to the challenge of our rival.

GREIVING: The result, "Eye Of The Tiger," joined "Gonna Fly Now" as one of the most popular workout tracks of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EYE OF THE TIGER")

SURVIVOR: (Singing) And he's watching us all with the eye of the tiger.

GREIVING: By the time director Ryan Coogler revived the series with "Creed" in 2015, the training montage was an established tradition he didn't want to mess with. But he and his composer, Ludwig Goransson, made it their own. Adonis Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan, is training for a climactic fight as per usual, but this time it's intercut with Rocky going through cancer treatment. Old age and youth, sickness and health - Goransson symbolized that with a loving homage to Bill Conti and "Gonna Fly Now," but with a powerful hip-hop energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEEK MILL, JHENE AIKO AND LUDWIG GORANSSON SONG "LORD KNOWS/FIGHTING STRONGER")

GREIVING: The training montage has clearly taken on a life of its own, which of course means it has inspired parodies, like in an episode of the TV show "Arrested Development," when Michael Bluth trains for a father-son triathlon to the strains of a song called "Balls In The Air."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALLS IN THE AIR")

DAVID SCHWARTZ: (Singing) Just grab a hold and juggle all those balls in the air. How hard can it be?

GREIVING: It's a funny spoof, but, like us, deep down, it knows that training montages rule.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.