Vince DiCola, composer of soundtracks for Rocky IV and Transformers: The Movie, talks to us about turning from session musician to film composer, creating Golden Globe/Grammy-nominated 'Far From Over' with Frank Stallone before tackling Rocky with his brother Sylvester.
On the night I speak to Vince DiCola, it is only fitting that his music play such a pivotal role in our interview. Not just the fact it's what brought us together after my falling in love with it during my formative years, but also because it provided much needed inspiration while running for the train I must catch in order to make the interview on time.
'Training Montage' from Rocky IV blasts in my earphones as I hurtle at (my) top speed to the station, where I discover the very long, upward escalator is out of order. It's a minute until the train leaves - can I make it? With Vince in my ears, of course I can. I'm not exactly bench-pressing old horse carts in the Siberian cold, but it's just as satisfying as I slip through the closing doors before the train leaves platform 3. The rest of the journey was getting my breath back for the call.
Of course, I tell Vince all of this as soon as we start speaking. He laughs warmly which makes it all worth it. "I'm glad I could help."
From there we launch straight into how Vince started his journey out to LA in the early 80's with aspirations of working as a session musician while developing his own music projects.
"I lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania up until 1981. I was with a cover band managed by a gentleman named Dave Bupp. He took me aside and said, "Listen, I feel like you've gone as far as you can go in this area and I really recommend that you move to one of the big music meccas in the United States." At the time, there were only three; New York, Nashville and Los Angeles. I chose Los Angeles because it's where a lot of the music that I was listening to was coming from. I got married in May of 1981 and literally a week later my wife and I moved across the country. It was a difficult move because we were leaving all our family and friends.
It didn't take too long after arriving in the City of the Angels for good fortune to smile down on him with the face of Frank Stallone.
"I was playing in a nightclub called The Red Onion. One night, Frank Stallone came in, I recognized him somewhat because he looks so much like his brother but I didn't know him. He came up to me at a break and he said, "I'm starting a band with my own original material and I need a keyboard player, would you mind coming down to audition?" I said, "Yes, I'll come down. It sounds like a great opportunity." He played me some of his songs and I really liked what he was writing. It ended up being just Frank and myself.
We played for several months around the LA area and then in late 1982 Frank made the decision start a band. Frank's brother had gotten us an amazing rehearsal hall down on the MGM movie lot. One day Sylvester Stallone and his whole entourage came in to hear and meet the band. We played then took a break, and that was the first time I met Sylvester. After the rehearsal Frank took me aside and said, "Listen, my brother just told me about a movie that he is writing and directing. It's the sequel to Saturday Night Fever and it's going to be called Staying Alive." He said, "The Bee Gees are going to participate again and there's some other artists who are going to be contributing songs." He went on to say, "My brother told me that if I wanted to submit some material for consideration, of course, he can't show any favoritism, but he would certainly consider the material."
Not needing any encouragement from me, Vince tells this story with vivid detail as if it happened just a year ago rather than 36. In fact, at this point he stops himself and insists he'll skip to the end of the story and "I've told it a million times but it's still exciting to tell". I insist he continues.
"We wrote five songs Frank paid to have recorded in a professional studio. Then he took that tape over to his brother's house as soon as we were done, and it turned out that Sly hated all five songs. I thought that was the end of it but one day Frank says, "Listen, I think I know what my brother is missing, what we did not give him in that first batch. It's a high energy, uplifting, rock tune that exemplifies not giving up." My opinion of that was he'd already rejected these other five songs, what's the sense of doing this one more song? Frank said, "I just have a gut feeling about it."
He came to my house one day with a little cassette boombox and we spent about half an hour in my little studio. We had an electric grand piano and Frank's boombox. Frank didn't even have any lyrics, we just had a sketch basically. After we finished recording, Frank said, "I'm going to take this right over to my brother's house." I said, "No, no, Frank. Please. The first five songs were done in a professional recording studio. We don't want to take this little boom box recording and present it to your brother in this format." Frank said, "I have a really, really good feeling about this. Let me do it.
That night, I remember going out to dinner with my wife Beth and when we came back the light on the message machine was blinking. I pressed play and here was Sylvester Stallone's voice saying, "Home run, Vinny." That's how he put it. That song ended up being Far From Over, which ended up being the theme song for Staying Alive. It actually outsold The Bee Gees material and Sly went back to the first five songs and took them all into the movie. That's the story of how I got into the business out here in California."
Not only is that how Vince got into the business, but it also announced his arrival to Hollywood with a Golden Globe-nominated song on a Grammy-nominated soundtrack - not to mention a track that would go on to be used in hit shows such as Glee and Glow. Not bad for his first time out! It was a success that would understandably alter Vince's career path. One that lead him to Staying Alive music supervisor Robin Garb - and in turn to Rocky IV.
"Robin had been managing Frank and approached me about signing with him as well. He was very instrumental in the whole Staying Alive experience. He also was music supervisor for many Sylvester Stallone films at that time. I was one of the first in town to find out that there was going to be a fourth movie in the Rocky franchise. I was also one of the first in town to find out through Robin that Sylvester had a falling out with Bill Conti. Robin said, “Listen, I know this is a long shot, but the way that you write and the way that you wrote with Frank and your contributions to those songs leads me to believe that you would be a good film composer. Would you like to go after the opportunity to score Rocky IV?"
He said, "I have a plan. I'm keeping a close track on everything that's going on in the production. As I get these plot points from Sly, I'm going to feed them to you and you're going to write some music based on this information. We have no footage for you to look at. This is just conceptualizing right now". I went in to my little eight-track studio, and with all the other Rocky movies in mind, I started to create.
'Training Montage' was the first piece I composed. 'War' was second. Robin was feeding me the plot points and said there was going to be a big death scene, there's going to be a funeral and then a funny robot comes in somewhere. That was the process. I finished writing maybe five ideas and sent the cassette to Robin. He listens and says, "Vince, I think you have a real shot at this." He told me about a week later what he had done. "I took your cassette tape, and I went into Sly's trailer as he was taking a break from the Rocky IV production. I had a little Walkman cassette player and a pair of headphones with me, and I put them on Sly’s head." Robin pressed play, and he said about a minute into it Sylvester jumps out of his chair and says, "Who the F is this?" [laughs] Robin said, “That's Vinny DiCola!” Sly says, "You mean the guy who wrote with my brother for Staying Alive? Sign him up immediately, I want him to score Rocky IV."
So, in a blink, Vince the session musician, had gone from award-nominated songwriter to now the composer of a major motion picture - and not just any motion picture, The Rocky franchise is one of the most beloved series of films in cinema history, in turn leading to the new Creed spin-offs.
"It was so surreal. When I got that phone call I was faced with fear because I hadn't really planned on getting the job! I was just doing this as an experiment to see how I could write for actual scoring and composing for film, thinking this could end up being a good experience either way. Robin called me and said, “Guess what? You have the job!” It was a case of, "Oh no, what do I do now [laughs]?".
There was also the small matter of Vince having to make his mark on one of the most well-known film scores of all time. It's a challenge that the most seasoned of film composers would consider a significant one, but it was one that Vince approached with the same mettle often so thematically prevalent in his music.
"Walking into such an iconic franchise, especially after Bill Conti had done three in the franchise and very successfully, I was thinking to myself, what can I bring that's different to what Bill has brought? Of course, there's going to be brass fanfare involved, has to be, because it's a Rocky movie. What I thought I could bring to the table was my musical roots which really are in 70's progressive rock. Progressive rock is a combination of rock, classical, jazz and other styles, I was heavily influenced by Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer. I took that style, joined it with what Bill Conti brought to the first three movies, and ended up mixing those ingredients together. I was able to bring my own unique style to that it and just happened to hit Stallone and everybody else in the production as a great style and way of continuing the music of the Rocky franchise."
Up to that point, the norm for traditional soundtracks had been to feature a more orchestral score. Vince brought a very unique and timely electronic style that would become synonymous with 80's movies - with Harold Faltermeyer being one electronic contemporary going on to have success with Beverly Hills Cop and Fletch.
Unfortunately for Vince, his Rocky IV score would pick up a Razzie, but this was more to do with the film itself rather than his music. Some of the cues he had to write didn't help, most notably a very 80's robot that somehow made it into the feature. However, next for Vince would be success and cult status with some robots of a very different kind - The Transformers.
"I got a call from the producers of Transformers: The Movie. Now, I had known nothing about Transformers at the time. When I met with the producers and they were explaining things to me, I think they were quite surprised that I had never heard anything about it. I said I think I can do a good job on this movie and I would love the opportunity, but I'm not going to go watch the cartoon because I don't want to be influenced at all by the music in that. I want to be fresh coming into this. They respected that.
Yet again, Vince would not have the benefit of actual footage against which to work on his score.
"They gave me storyboards to write to as they didn't have any picture at that point. I had never worked with storyboards in my life. When I got these damn things, to put it bluntly, it was like, "This is weird. How am I going to do this?" I did the best that I could. Gradually, they sent me some finished footage but it wasn't till very late in the process, and the footage was vastly different from the storyboards. Consequentially we realized a lot of adjustment was going to be necessary. My co-producer on the project, Ed Fruge, said, "Vince, I think they're going to be cutting this music that you wrote. We don't want to trust a film editor to do this in a musical way. Why don't I be the guy?" Ed was on the scoring stage and in the editing room, doing his best to take the music that I had written and adjust it to the picture. That was a very important and difficult process. Ed did such a great job of taking my music and making all these edits sound as musical as you could hope for."
That being said, when Vince finally got to see the film mixed with his music, it was not the result he was hoping for.
"I was very disappointed. Not in Ed's work and or my work, but in something getting lost in the translation, so to speak. In other words, if I had had the picture sooner, I would have written differently. I don't think it worked. Sound effects often take precedence over the music. Very few composers and directors get that balance right. Just as an aside, I think Christopher Nolan is one of the guys who gets it - how important the music is - even to the point where in some of his movies, you can't understand the dialogue because he's got the music so loud, but it really works well. The mixing guys on Transformers did not get that. They drowned out the music in most cases with sound effects."
Vince admits he didn't follow the film after it flopped upon its release. In fact, he put the whole project down to experience and turned his attention to other projects. It wasn't until 11 years later that he would realise the fandom the film, and his music, had attracted over the next decade.
"In 1997 I was contacted by Glen Hallit, the organizer of BotCon, one of the first Transformers conventions. Glen educated me on how much of a cult following this film had garnered. Specifically, he said, "Do you know how many fans there are of your music?" I really had no idea. I think the music played an important role after all. I'll go to screenings every once in a while, I look at all these fans, they know every line of the movie, they know every piece of the music, they know the music literally better than I do at this point. I can look around at the faces in the theater and they're anticipating all these things. I'm watching them watching the movie and it's a very surreal experience. Fans tell me, 'this is what your music did to me as I was growing up'. I tell you, that is a surreal and wonderful experience. I never expected it and it continues to this day. I'm very blessed I'm able to go to conventions, play live concerts and include this music and people still seem to love it. I'm very, very lucky about that."
In addition to his score, Vince had a hand in writing and recording one song for the movie too ("Dare" featuring Stan Bush). His collaboration with Stan Bush saw tracks such as 'Dare' and 'The Touch' become cult favourites. The latter is 'performed' by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. I ask him if he's seen the film. The question is met with knowing laughter.
"Oh, yes, absolutely. Well, let me set the record straight about something and it's funny because people often get confused about this. Stan Bush wrote and recorded 'The Touch'. I had nothing to do with that song. That was all Stan's song and 'Dare' was the song that I wrote for the movie, I think the reason people get it mixed up is because Stan sang both songs. I was the one that told Stan, I called Stan up right after I returned from seeing the movie and said, "Do you realize you're using your song in this movie Boogie Nights?" He had no idea. We were laughing about that and yes, it was a funny use of that song."
At this point I keenly clarify that 'Dare' is absolutely my favourite out of the two tracks.- although both are bangers. Which leads me on to another question I think would be at the forefront of most Transformers fans - why was Vince's signature style missing from Michael Bay's live action revival?
"Actually, we had submitted a package to Michael Bay for the 2007 movie. It got all the way up the chain to Michael Bay's assistant who told us Michael did not want any of the elements from the original movie associated with the live-action version. I already had a good idea in my mind of how I would approach the score if I were given the opportunity. It would obviously have been much grander in scope compared to my music for the 1986 animated film. I would’ve incorporated both orchestral and electronic elements. Having said that, Michael had his own vision and had already developed a relationship with the composer who ended up scoring the movies, Steve Jablonsky. I respect that, but I have to tell you the truth, every time I hear about a new live-action Transformers movie being made and it will be talked about, my heart does a little skip."
For fans who would like a little taste of what Vince could have offered the live-action films with a similar style, just check out the Angry Birds Transformers game which he scored.
We're close to wrapping up our call and I have two questions remaining. The first, is what are his thoughts on his career looking back now.
"I have to say it was like my career worked backward because I was able to have success in the music business within two years of moving to California and that's very abnormal. A lot of people come to California and it may take a decade before they make enough connections to do anything so I was very lucky. I made the right connections at the right time, but I wasn't able to sustain that success because it's hard. It's really very competitive out here, and more so now than ever before.
After I did Transformers, I went around to various agents here in town to try and get representation. I had done all this without having an agent mainly because of my connection to the Stallone family. I had a manager at the time, but I didn't have an agent. When I finally approached some agents here in LA who represent film composers, none of them were really interested because at the time they said, "Well, we're worried that all you can do is hero movies." What's really ironic about that is, look how many hero movies have come out over the last several years! After having such a difficult time finding representation I went back to doing original band projects and that lasted for a number of years."
And with all that experience, what advice would he give up and coming composers looking to put their stamp on the industry?
You know the advice I have now would probably be much different than when I first started out. The main thing I would say is, get your self-promoting chops together, because you may not have the luxury of having representation. You may not have the luxury of making the kind of connections I did when I first got into writing music for films. If I would go back and do anything differently, I would have taken more business classes, I would have focused more on self-promotion, networking, that whole thing. These aspects of the business are every bit as important as talent these days. I'm not saying that you don't have to have talent, you absolutely do. I could give you so many examples of composers who are not all that good in my opinion, to put it nicely, but are excellent at networking. When you're going after a project, you have to try and convince everyone around you that you can do better than anybody else, and that you're the perfect guy for the job. Although that may seem like a very egotistical attitude, it’s actually something that can work in your favor, especially in the entertainment business. That's my first bit of advice.
My second bit of advice is to work hard to find your own 'voice'. It's so easy in this day and age to try and emulate other composers. The problem is, the further along we get in the timeline, the harder it is to come up with something that's unique from all these other guys. The Hans Zimmers, the John Williams, the list goes on. Especially in the case of Hans Zimmer, he's got a whole camp full of people who compose in a style similar to his. Directors are saying, “Okay, if we can't get Hans, let's get one of the guys in his camp, because he'll write like Hans anyway, and at a fraction of the cost.” What I'm saying is, there is a tendency to say, “Okay, I'm going to write a piece of music like Hans Zimmer because that's the style directors seem to gravitate the most to right now.” My advice to composers who are pursuing a career in writing for films is, strive very hard to develop your own unique style of writing because that's how all the great composers got to where they are.
There's no right or wrong way when it comes to stylistic film composing. As just one example, it was a brilliant decision to hire Trent Reznor for The Social Network because that score is so different from what one normally expects from a Hollywood film composer. Another great example is Thom Yorke's score to the recent remake of “Susperia”. That score was so different from what any of the Hollywood film guys would have done and that's why I love it. There are no boundaries, no trends you’re required to follow. As difficult as it may seem, nothing should stop you from striving to have your own unique identity. That's the best way I could put it."
Take heed, new composers. And if you ever need inspirational music to fire the can-do attitude Vince is talking about, you know whose music to listen to.
You can follow Vince on Twitter: @DiColaOfficial