Rocky Balboa has been an iconic figure since his humble beginnings in the first Rocky film, released in 1976. Sylvester Stallone’s tale of an underdog prizefighter receiving the opportunity to challenge Apollo Creed for the world heavyweight title, and his efforts to woo the shy Adrian, won the hearts of moviegoers.
But for children of the 1980s such as me, the defining film of the series is 1985’s Rocky IV. This installment was my first experience with a Rocky movie, via repeated showings on HBO in '86. Rocky won my 8-year-old heart by defeating the deadly Russian fighter Ivan Drago and getting revenge for the fallen Apollo.
Rocky IV also fueled my budding interest in rock music. There has always been great care given to music in the Rocky series. The inspirational power of Rocky’s initial run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is driven by the enduring theme “Gonna Fly Now.” Rocky II features a dour score for what is a mostly dour movie, until Rocky gets back in shape for his rematch with Apollo. Survivor’s rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger” propels the series into the 1980s with its hard-driving guitars opening Rocky III.
But it’s the multiple music-driven montages of Rocky IV that remain the most memorable moments of the series in the minds of ‘80s kids like me. Survivor returns with another anthem — “Burning Heart” — as Rocky descends upon Russia for the big fight. John Cafferty’s “Hearts on Fire” backed a training montage that is parodied to this day. Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out” provided background for flashbacks from the previous movies, leading up to Rocky’s run-in with Drago.
“[Stallone] created an MTV music video in the middle of his freaking movie!” exclaims Tepper during a conversation a couple of weeks back over coffee at Marie et Cie in Valley Village.
It was these montages that turned me into a rock fan. Every time I watched Rocky IV, I found myself afterward singing “Burning Heart,” “Hearts on Fire” and “No Easy Way Out.” They were probably the first rock songs I learned the lyrics to, and their glossy ‘80s hard rock set me up for when Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” hit a year later and turned my love of rock into a lifelong obsession.
Tepper, the voice behind “No Easy Way Out,” is 66 now but could easily pass for 15 years younger. He is also in great spirits and, ahead of a July 23 show at the Whisky a Go-Go, more than happy to talk about his Rocky IV experience.
“The big promotional lie at the time was that I had written the song for Rocky IV. That’s not the truth,” Tepper reveals. “Stallone had come to my label looking for music. He heard the song and went crazy for it. He tried to get me to do another song that was specific for the movie, but the timing was too late on that.”
Six months after Rocky IV, Tepper released an album also called No Easy Way Out. It sold well, but he never another hit as big as the title track. Still, Tepper focuses on the positives that he got out of his involvement with the film.
“I got a platinum record, and I’m part of this historic franchise for life,” Tepper says.
In the years since, Tepper has remained a working musician; he now is a recording engineer for new bands coming out of the Musicians Institute. He wasn’t aware that a cult had grown around the music of Rocky IV until he joined Twitter after the release of his 2012 album, New Life Story.
“I never got that people were so passionate about it,” he says. “I started touching base with fans and reading about people exercising to it and boxers coming to the ring to it. It’s not just a force of the music. It’s the marriage of the music and the movie.”
The marriage of music with the Rocky series remains strong to this day. For last year’s Creed, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler enlisted modern hip-hop artists like Meek Mill to bring the series into contemporary times, and used music as a plot device, giving the title character’s love interest, Bianca, her own aspirations as a budding R&B singer.
But for me, the most powerful marriage of music and film in the entire franchise remains Rocky IV. And that is why this Saturday night, I’ll be proudly up front shouting along while Robert Tepper sings “No Easy Way Out.”
Robert Tepper performs at the Whisky a Go-Go on Saturday, July 23. More info.