After fielding public derision about my gym workout playlist containing Frank Stallone’s Far From Over, I’m going to double and even triple down in the face of intense critical scorn and say that, nearly forty years after it first saw the light of day, I’m still listening to and being motivated by the soundtrack album of Rocky IV. I grew up with the Rocky films, and few early cinema experiences matched the sharply edited be-all-you-can-be training montage to Rocky III accompanied by the classic track Eye of the Tiger by Survivor. The same band contribute a more-than-decent reprise song here, Burning Heart, but before we get to the sweetest victory of musical uplift, there’s the actual film to be discussed first.
Now that we’ve hit nine films in the Rocky/Creed franchise, it seems hard to believe that we used to talk about a Rocky trilogy, but that’s where we stood in our high-cut, midriff-revealing tank-top training vests at the end of the third film. Having disposed of both such renowned pro athletes as Hulk Hogan and Mr T, where was there left for Rocky to go, what worlds left to conquer? Patriotism is the last refuge of many a scoundrel, and any integrity the series had took an abrupt dive when Rocky wrapped himself in Old Glory and took on a symbolic bout against Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren. Rocky himself has somehow lost the eye of the tiger; his family are Living in America, but in moral-eroding luxury like the Beverly Hillbillies, complete with a robot butler.
Meanwhile Rocky’s rival-turned-coach Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) marinates in his swimming pool absorbing the intoxicating B-sides of Go West’s song One Way Street. Previously happy to step out of the ring to coach Rocky to success, Creed is celebrating a complete personality transplant which makes him anxious enough to prove his fading mid-life crisis manhood by unwisely fighting Drago, who emerges blinking into a flashbulb-filled Las Vegas arena like he’s King Kong in chains.
This is quite literally Rocky on steroids; ‘Russians invade US sports’ scream spinny newspaper headlines, ‘They are sportsmen, not soldiers’ trill commentators, followed by ‘For the first time, it’s West against East in professional sports,’ which doesn’t feel true at all, given that America and Russia have a long, long history of sports rivalry. But the facts don’t matter; Drago kills Creed in the ring, much to the chagrin of Creed’s wife, and Rocky sets up a rematch with Drago, in Moscow, for no money, on Christmas Day; it’s Double or Nothing, as the unlikely duo of Kenny Loggins and Gladys Knight croon on the soundtrack.
I was in NYC when the original Rocky was unveiled as a stage-musical, but they should have cut to the chase and skipped straight to Rocky IV; it’s just one bangin’ training montage after another, with the right Reverend Robert Tepper’s sermon No Easy Way Out and Vince De Cola’s obliquely titled Training Montage providing a stirring accompaniment to Rocky falling in snow, pulling sledges, and honing his physique in an ice palace lit with flames of righteous fire. ‘I did not come here to lose,’ says Drago with a gift for stating the obvious, but eventually he loses when Rocky beats him senseless in the ring and then offers a breathless paean to political transformation; ‘If I can change, and you can change, then everybody can change,’. The Moscow crowd, previously baying for Rocky’s blood, quickly change their allegiance, and shortly after, the Berlin War fell, the world peace which has lasted to this day broke out and everyone was happy.
‘We can’t do what we used to do before,’ intones Stallone as he helms yet another film in which he does exactly what he used to do before; he’s maintained this line of patter over the next four decades. Meanwhile Rocky’s wife Adrian (Talia Shire) does her classic ‘Don’t do it, you’ll get hurt,’ speech to both Rocky and Creed, but despite misgivings, travels to Moscow to cheer on the bloodshed with rabid enthusiasm. Like the audience, Adrian keeps getting dragged back to witness more and more unlikely feats of manhood; there’s a reason why Stallone’s legacy features so heavily in the new Barbie movie. Seen in 2023, Rocky IV is full of energy, childish politics, nostalgia for a simple past that never was, and intensely motivational songs. With the world seemingly going to hell right now, it’s it time that we all took heed of Robert Tepper’s salient words?