Over the last few years, sports historians, particularly in the United States and Down Under, have been getting to grips with the legacy of sport on film. One of the best essays is that by colleagues Gary Osmond and Murray Phillips at the University of Queensland who tackled the imagery and representation of Salute, a documentary about Peter Norman, the silver-medal winning Australian athlete present on the podium during the black power salute made at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. To this may be added the presence of a dedicated section in the Journal of Sport History, published by the North American Society for Sports History, which has tackled a number of recent films on boxing, American football and others.
It would be wrong of me to criticise this emerging scholarship for ignoring music, since that is to cavil at a strand of scholarship that is still in its infancy, but I do wish in this post to consider the possibilities, themes, and problems of studying the music employed in sports films from a historical point of view. This is a subject that has occupied some of my thoughts for some time and combines a long-standing passion for music, both as a player and as a listener, and a desire to make my own sports history more interdisciplinary, albeit in a different direction to current trends towards science and sociology.
So where to begin? We know, both from our own experiences in a stadium or from watching old videos, that music has been a significant component in the audio-visual spectacle of sport. Think of the Wurlitzer organ and the creeping ostinato motif used at ice hockey matches or the community singing evident at rugby and soccer matches. Few Welsh fans can get away without knowing the words to Cwm Rhondda, Delilah, and Calon Lan; and any one heading off to Wembley for the FA Cup had been crib the lyrics to Abide With Me before they get to the stadium. To jog your memories, here’s a clip or two of massed singing in the stadium.
I’m not going to give away which I think is the most powerful, though I do have my favourite. Suffice it to say that place of music here is extremely potent, deliberately so. But how do sports films respond to and build upon this ferocity? Sports films, of course, rely heavily on nostalgia and traditional story-telling normatives such as such as redemption or the triumph against adversity. This is not surprising since the sports film is a dramatisation of a particular form of identity, whether American or British (for the purposes of this post, at least). To that end, the music score has one simple role – to emphasise and guide the viewer’s emotions, to reinforce their sense of nostalgia or sense of place.
The most famous sports film of all is probably Rocky (1976). Telling the story of a downtrodden club fighter in Philadelphia and his rise to a World Championship fight, the film is a powerful and compelling commentary on the disaffection of working-class young men in 1970s America. It features a relatively slender score by the American composer Bill Conti, the highlight being the funky main theme, Gonna Fly Now, which soars across the famous training montage. Rocky, a film grounded in a form of gritty realism, presents a particular challenge because its score was never intended as nostalgia, it was firmly part of and reflective of contemporary popular music in the 1970s. But to modern ears, the funk and disco sounds leave Rocky aurally lodged in the particular – remember the lampooning in the film Team America? As it happens, the same complaint may be raised of Chariots of Fire (1981), the most prominent British sports film, which features a strident electronic score stuck in the 1980s. It too was contemporary, once. This one was spoofed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.
If Chariots and Rocky have become musically nostalgic, the other prominent sports film of the 1980s – Hoosiers (1986) – was deliberately so, at least in part. The film, otherwise known as Best Shot in the United Kingdom, follows a small-town basketball team from Indiana as they set out to win the state championships. Crucially, the film is set in the 1950s. Composer Jerry Goldsmith – and here I must own up to him being my favourite composer for film – managed to turn a hybrid electronic-orchestral score into aural nostalgia. Here’s the main theme. When the solo trumpet kicks in across the sustained strings, you’re taken away to the past. The score for Hoosiers / Best Shot is one of the most remarkable written for a sports movie – you can hear why in this piece. Those drum-like beats, irregular and unsustained – they’re manipulated sounds taken from recordings of basketballs beating on the floor of a court. Even without the visuals of the film in front of you, the score provides a real sense of being at a court. It’s a technique repeated, albeit with electronic versions of rowing blades in the water, in Stanislas Syrewicz’ score for True Blue (1996). Goldsmith’s employment of this technique enables the score to transcend the dual pitfalls of being dated through the electronics and through its overt nostalgia in the first place.
With Goldsmith’s next sports film, Rudy (1993), however, the nostalgic is pushed as far as it can go in part because the composer abandoned the electronics for a rich, orchestral Americana. Rudy is a biopic of Daniel Ruettiger, an unlikely college football player for Notre Dame (West Wing fans take note!), who triumphs against the odds to turn out for the university’s team despite being too short. The main theme for Rudy establishes the film in the past, as you can hear, but compare it to Hoosiers and you can be forgiven for thinking that the film is set further back than it actually is. In this case, Rudy takes place in the 1970s – here’s the game. What has saved Rudy over the years is that it is deeply inspirational, the orchestral equivalent of the Rocky score, and the track Take Us Out was used by John McCain in his ill-fated 2008 Presidental Election Campaign precisely because of its musical strength. Orchestral nostalgia dominated sports films in the 1990s, whether in Elmer Bernstein’s score to accompany The Babe (1991), the biopic of inter-war baseball star Babe Ruth; David Newman’s The Mighty Ducks (1992), which is ostensibly contemporary in its setting but nevertheless conforms to the established trope; or Rachel Portman’s orchestral accompaniment to The Legend of Baggar Vance (2000). There’s that solo trumpet again!
The similarities in tone of the above scores, particularly those from the 1990s, serve as a reminder that sports films are a vehicle for an examination of a particular form of identity, as I said earlier. Nostalgia is a powerful force that strips away some of the great complexities of the past, the chaos of the past, if you will, to frame what happened in comforting, distancing sepia tones. We cannot divorce those films and their music from their context: Rocky, made in the mid-1970s, at a time of crisis for working-class young men; the films of the 1990s made, particularly in the early part of the decade, when the world was undergoing its post-Cold War change. Steve Pope, a friend and colleague from the United States, wrote twenty years ago that ‘sports have never been merely instruments of social harmony, a means of self-expression, or a vehicle of satisfying societal needs. All such interpretations ignore class divisions and conflicts, and the inequalities of power in societies, registered in sports’. How far can music express such critical ideas? How far can historians critique music (and film) in similar ways? That will be the challenge in marrying historical analysis of sports film and an awareness and sensitivity to their musical scores.
Nostalgia is not the only theme that can be drawn out of the music employed in sports films and in the future I hope to explore some of those but in drawing attention to it, I hope this post serves as a useful stopping off point as historians, particularly sports historians, continue to incorporate film into their work. Comments and ideas are, as always, extremely welcome.