Yeah, to you it’s Thanksgiving; to us it’s Rocky Week. Today, Ryan Coogler’s highly anticipated Rocky spin-off, Creed, hits theaters and to celebrate, we’ve carved out a feast of features. On Monday, Dan Caffrey finished his own Rocky Marathon. On Tuesday, Blake Goble and Sarah Kurchak ranked all the sidekicks that helped make the Italian Stallion a champ. Today, we’re celebrating the art of the montage. Come Thursday, you’re gonna be crappin’ thunder!
A montage, at its most fundamental level, gets us from point A to point B. It’s a technical and tactical move on behalf of the filmmaker, who strings together a series of shots in order to condense space, time, and information. More often than not, however, it’s a lazy tool, especially for sloppy screenwriters who cram in a ton of story without any natural finesse.
Sometimes, though, they’re fucking brilliant.
If done well, a montage can rile up a crowd, it can boost a character, it can shake up the moods. For some, it’s the most memorable part of the film, the golden nugget that they can walk away with and return to mentally from time to time. Actually, that’s a likely argument for every inclusion on this list; after all, why else would we be writing about them?
Well, technically because it’s Rocky Week, and if we’re being honest, like the ol’ Italian Stallion himself, we immediately decided that there’s no better montage than what lies in the 1976 original. The problem is we really wanted to write about other ones, so we flipped through our memories and came up with a definitive 10 that all lead up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Care to run with us? Flip ahead.
10. “We’re Gonna Need a Montage”
Team America: World Police (2004)
Team America: World Police, a movie that probably stood as the funniest film you’d ever seen if you were young enough when it was first released over a decade ago and is still funny but probably not quite as politically incendiary as you might once have assumed, is remembered for a lot of things. Numbers one through five on that list probably land in the general realm of “MPAA-baiting puppet fucking,” but what the marionette-driven satire also managed was the kind of sly commentary on hacky, xenophobic Michael Bay thrillers that would then be run into the ground when Bay became film geekery’s favorite punching bag.
Nowhere is this clearer than during the film’s obligatory self-improvement montage, set to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Montage”. For some, this may have been an introduction to the trope, for others a loving and accurate knockoff of the sports movie montage. It helps that Parker and Stone’s song is basically an amalgam of every other montage song prominently featured on this list and that it’s hard to shake said song being the first thing that comes to mind when watching a bad action movie advance through too much time in just one clean montage.
Best Shot: It’s a quick one, which is part of the joke as much as anything, but Spottswoode chain-smoking through every scene is a great deadpan bit, no more so than at 0:22, when he re-enacts the first karate duel in The Matrix with a square in hand.
09. “We’re Contenders Now!”
Major League (1989)
What separates Major League from its many, many competitors is its unique ability to fuse screwball comedy with a genuine sentimental narrative. You may be nearly pissing your pants from laughter, but you’re also invested enough that your ass is hanging at the edge of your seat by the film’s final minutes. Part of that success stems from David S. Ward’s streamlined direction and one punchy screenplay, but it’s also by and large due to the eclectic cast and James Newton Howard’s magical score.
This idea comes across in the two major montages that spike the film’s breezy 106 minutes. The first is the hilarious training sequence, but the real MVP is the winning streak, which finds the team stripping off a piece of clothing from a cardboard cutout of their irate GM/former Las Vegas showgirl, Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), after every win. Fueled by Howard’s feel-good rhythms, the entire thing is chock-full of visual gags yet also riddled with rewarding character development. You can’t lose.
Best Shot: At 1:58, Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) slides into first and delivers the signature line literally every kid in my PE class would say during kickball or baseball: “The American Express Card, don’t steal home without it.” Those eyebrows!
8. “You’re the Best”
The Karate Kid (1984)
The montage as it’s typically understood at this moment in cultural history has become heavily associated with the sports movie, ironically and otherwise. Situated between those two points is its use in The Karate Kid, the archetype of the “get better at x in a hurry” template so popular in its time. From the moment that Daniel (Ralph Macchio) is told “You’re the best!” immediately segues into the Joe Esposito jam of same name, the montage juxtaposes Daniel’s rising through the ranks of the invitational tournament that will ultimately end in Johnny sweeping the leg, to little avail.
Before that, The Karate Kid offers a surprisingly lengthy summary of the entire tournament up to that point, which seems to only be lacking an enthusiastic commentary booth. Some of the fights are oddly halted, others hotly competitive. And despite Daniel’s seeming terror at the whole prospect, he ultimately proves himself to be the best around. Like ol’ Joe told us, nothing would ever keep him down. Seriously, though. The entirety of “You’re the Best” gets played out before this montage is over. Including the bridge most people don’t remember and just sort of half-syllabically slur through in karaoke renditions.
Best Shot: At 1:17, probably the most authoritative karate maneuver in Daniel’s tournament. I’m not saying the young man didn’t work hard; I’m just saying he also coasted through a lucky bracket.
07.”Revenge by Shopping”
Pretty Woman (1990)
While Julia Roberts’ surprised reaction/giggle is the most famous scene from the movie, this montage is where the story takes a turn in a new direction for her character, Vivian. She’s been living it up in a penthouse suite as a hired prostitute of Edward Lewis, played by Richard Gere. The fantasy of getting everything you want in the confines of a paid luxury suite doesn’t translate to the outside world, as Vivian is harshly reminded of when refused service at an upscale clothing store.
Edward takes her to a store where he guarantees she will be treated fairly … and let the shopping spree begin. Soundtracked by Roy Orbison’s famous song (that happens to share a title with the movie), Vivian buys fancy clothes, fancy hats, and fancy … pizza? Yep, that’s comedy great Larry Miller helping her out at one point (“Who ordered pizza?”). It ends with her going back to the store that rejected her and … why am I telling you this? Watch the clip! A star was born in this sequence!
Best Shot: Vivian goes full Cinderella 38 seconds in. A star was born! I already said that!
06. “Baptism by Fire”
The Godfather (1972)
Everything in the legendary mobster movie leads us to this moment. While attending the baptism of his niece, we witness Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) speak the vows making him a godfather while hits he ordered are placed across town. Cutting between the holy promises and the unholy killings is as brutal as director Francis Ford Coppola can get (save the Fredo scene in the follow-up). The church music that scores the scene becomes more and more eerie as the events unfold, as though the organist knew what was going on around town.
The Godfather doesn’t end after this sequence, but Michael’s deeds forever doom him to his fate: a hero soldier who once told his girlfriend that he was nothing like his father turns out to be just the opposite. Those killed during the montage clear the path for Michael to take his family to greater heights, while damning them to hell in the process. At what price power? And can’t a guy go to a barber, prostitute, or massage parlor without getting killed these days?
Best Shot: Which gun shot to choose from? The one at 3:55 with Moe Greene getting one in the eye is tough to watch. NSFW, OBV.
05. “Higher and Higher”
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Wet Hot American Summer actually has not just one, but two essential uses of the montage to the ends of perfectly dumb comedy. The honorable mention goes to the camp counselors’ day away, which sees the pent-up teens who totally aren’t in their late twenties or thirties go into the quaint nearby town to stock up on snacks, beers, heroin, and whatever money can be stolen from the local elderly population as quickly as possible. It’s always so nice to get away from camp, even if just for an hour.
But as the training montage goes, the one that particularly intrigues us here, WHAS introduces one of the essential anthems alongside one of the visual medium’s more moving redemption tales. As Cooper (Michael Showalter) sits despondent, unsure of how to recapture the love that’s so eluded someone so uncool and unconfident as he, it’s the wise camp cook Gene (Christopher Meloni) who shows Coop the … what is it? “The New Way”.
As far as we can understand, “The New Way” includes some quality coffee talk, an emotionally taxing dance, and the kind of short-distance running that can only be learned through true emotional growth. All set to the song that once united two divided summer camps, no less.
Best Shot: Counselor Mixed Vegetable’s stoic approval at 2:20.
04. “A Dark Knight”
The Dark Knight (2008)
Starting with 2006’s The Prestige, although you could technically argue for 2001’s Memento, Christopher Nolan had begun to trademark the closing montage, but it wasn’t until 2008’s The Dark Knight that he finally turned it into an art form. The difference is that by this point he wasn’t employing the medium as a way to simply wrap up the action. No, he was using it as a means to relate his own closing statements, to deliver the proverbial one-two punch that would bruise the soul and make you remember.
It’s a trick he’s used to great success again and again, from 2010’s Inception to last year’s Interstellar, but it all started here with the titular hero’s stoic acceptance speech, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The way Nolan dances through the scenes as Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s score swells is operatic in every sense of the word. “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be,” Batman insists. “Call it in.” The dialogue that follows pummels as you watch the vision Gordon and Bats shatter to pieces.
Best Shot: The last shot on the bike is probably the one, right? But nothing hurts more than watching Gordon axe through the Bat signal at 2:20. “You’ll hunt me, you’ll condemn me, set the dogs on me … because that’s what needs to happen.” The blue wash and the rainy weather only add to the effect. Ugh, I’m getting chills just typing it.
03. “Breakfast in Purgatory”
Citizen Kane (1941)
In three minutes, first-time writer/director Orson Welles takes us from the loving, optimistic beginnings of a marriage through to its devastating, silent conclusion. People have written books and created documentaries over how innovative Welles was while filming Citizen Kane, but there is so much more to this scene than the dialogue (which is as cracking as the rest of the film). Note the small breakfast table in which Kane’s wife, Emily, sits right next to her husband at the start of the scene. In a couple of minutes, the table is longer, and Emily is on the opposite side.
While the dialogue doesn’t explain major events we’re zooming past, it shows us both sides of the married couple. Kane isn’t in any hurry to go to work at the beginning, but by the next part of the sequence his idea of “10 minutes” there is much longer. There’s an argument over politics and family, the newspaper, and Emily’s disdain towards Kane’s good friend Mr. Bernstein. The silence at the end is welcoming. As Leland tells us, “That’s all he really wanted out of life was love. That’s Charlie’s story: how he lost it.”
Best Shot: What else? The silent finale at 2:50.
2. “Push It to the Limit”
There’s a reason Brian De Palma’s Scarface is widely celebrated by college kids and rappers across America. The three-hour opus capitalizes, both literally and metaphorically, on the excess that comes from unadulterated power. Audiences love that shit; it’s an escape from their own reality, where a gluttonous purchase is a Playstation 4 game priced at 60 bucks. So, watching Tony Montana swim through cash as he builds up Miami and snorts up cocaine, friends, and family is like a goddamn thrill ride.
It’s gratuitous, sure, but that’s the point, which is what makes this montage so essential. De Palma bottles up the expenses in one reel like a neurotic accountant who’s also dipped his fingers in Tony’s stash. We’re wiping our foreheads, too, as Tony’s post-Loggia life goes from rags to riches to god knows what you call this … ravenous? Yeah, let’s go with that. The whole thing screams of the Crazy Eighties and is the prime reason why Trey Parker’s “Montage Song” exists, but it’s fucking gold, my lil’ friend.
Best Shot: Christ, how do you pick just one? This whole thing’s an exercise in hyperbole, but the peak of the montage occurs between 2:24 and 2:52, when Tony leads his wedding party out into his backyard, where there’s this big ol’ Bengal tiger. Total laugh riot.
1. “Gonna Fly Now”
Here it is. The sports montage that begat all sports montages. Okay, there were some before it, but none this memorable. Any training sequence that followed takes something from this bit of direction by John G. Avildsen and script from Sylvester Stallone. Hell, even the sequels ape this with varying results. It’s just Rocky running around Philadelphia, past docks, city streets, and finishes with him atop those famous steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — complete with slo-mo!
The score by Bill Conti doesn’t hurt, either. Here are all of the training sequences featuring Rocky (sorry, Rocky V’s Tommy Morrison). The second movie has a crowd following the now well-known Rock, the third sees him running on the beach alongside old adversary Apollo Creed, the fourth takes us to Russia and the blasphemy of removing Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” in favor of John Cafferty’s “Hearts on Fire”, while the sixth brings us home. These are always highlights, and I’m happy to report a very similar sequence pops up in Creed.
Best Shot: Triumph in slo-mo at 2:36!