Somebody Up There Likes Me

NBC had scheduled its television adaptation of “The Battler,” Ernest Hemingway’s short story about a washed-up, punch-drunk fighter, to air in October 1955, with James Dean in the title role. But when the volatile young actor died in a tragic accident less than one month prior to the live broadcast, the network decided to move another up-and-coming young actor, Paul Newman, from the part of narrator Nick Adams into the lead. It proved to be a fortuitous development for Newman, because his performance so impressed director Robert Wise and producer Charles Schnee that they cast him as prizefighter Rocky Graziano—another role originally intended for Dean—in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), their film version of Graziano’s autobiography.

Born Thomas Rocco Barbella, Graziano (1919–1990) reigned as world middleweight champion in 1947 and ’48. By 1955, he had retired from boxing and begun a new career on television, appearing both as himself and in various roles on comedies, variety programs and quiz shows. His autobiography, co-written with Rowland Barber, became a surprise bestseller (M-G-M had purchased the rights even before its publication) and that, combined with his television appearances, made him a well-known pop-culture figure. His rags-to-riches story of a young street punk who found salvation and fame in sport (and the love of a good woman) had great appeal for mid-1950s America. Graziano’s personality (and his first name) would later inspire a much more famous boxing film: Rocky (1976).

Newman had acted on Broadway, on television and in films (including The Silver Chalice, FSMCD Vol. 10, No. 11), but was not yet a big star. Seizing this opportunity, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the role. Newman spent several days with Graziano, studying his physical mannerisms and learning to mimic his accent. He also trained extensively for the film, getting himself in good enough shape to hold his own in the fight scenes.

Having already directed a superb boxing movie (1949’s The Set-Up), Wise decided to make his new picture as realistic as possible, insisting that daytime exteriors be shot on location in New York, which provided the black-and-white film added authenticity. Scriptwriter Ernest Lehman played a little fast and loose with certain details of Graziano’s life in the interest of creating a taut film, but the result was—in Lehman’s own opinion—his best effort for the screen. Lehman and Wise would revisit the same location and, in some ways, the same character types when they collaborated a few years later on West Side Story.

The first act of Somebody Up There Likes Me covers Rocky’s troubled childhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, his difficult and abusive relationship with his father, his increasing problems with authority (mostly involving petty theft) and his eventual imprisonment. The second act deals with his release from prison, his drafting into the Army and his subsequent inability to cope with military authority. When Rocky goes AWOL after punching a superior officer, he manages to avoid a further descent into crime, instead finding success as a boxer—until the Army catches up with him and sends him off to Leavenworth, where he becomes a model prisoner. Once freed, Rocky finds professional success as well as personal happiness in the form of love and family. Act three covers his troubles with organized crime, but ends happily with his victory in a middleweight title fight.

Critics reacted favorably, with special praise for Newman’s performance and Lehman’s screenplay. Somebody Up There Likes Me received three Oscar nominations, winning two (black-and-white art direction and cinematography). Bronislau Kaper’s spare but effective score elicited little comment, although The Hollywood Reporter observed that it “effectively underscores the shifting moods of the picture.”

Kaper bases his entire score on just two themes: a title song (with lyrics by Sammy Cahn) and a terse, four-note motive that characterizes the grittier “urban” moments in the score. The song (which Time’s reviewer called “treacly”) belongs to a genre fashionable in the 1950s—songs of “faith and inspiration”—popularized by singers such as George Beverly Shea, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley and Perry Como (who recorded “Somebody Up There Likes Me” for the film). Kaper subjects the song’s four-square, hymn-like regularity to an amazing number of transformations throughout the score, evoking emotions as diverse as fear, despair and love.

Vocalist Bill Lee made a pre-recording of the song on May 15, 1955, while Miklós Rózsa conducted the main body of the underscore on June 1—one of the few occasions when the studio’s leading composer conducted a film score by anyone other than himself. Two weeks later, studio music chief John Green conducted a short session of revisions and sweeteners.

29. Main Title (demo recording)
In place of Perry Como’s soundtrack recording of the Kaper/Cahn title song (not available for this release), FSM presents this demo version recorded by renowned Hollywood dubbing artist Bill Lee on June 1, 1956, Conducted by John Green and orchestrated (like the rest of the score) by Robert Franklyn, this preliminary recording differs from the version used in the film. Considerably longer, it includes an orchestral verse that returns to the vocal for the concluding phrase.
Como’s record label, RCA, recorded his version in June 1956, featuring the Ray Charles Singers and the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra in an arrangement by Joe Reisman. RCA released it on a 45rpm single coupled with the theme song (“Dream Along With Me”) from Como’s popular TV show. Como’s recording spent 10 weeks on the Billboard charts, climbing to No. 18.
30. “L” Train
Location shots establish the New York milieu behind the opening credits, ending as a commuter train hurtles through the night. Kaper breaks the hopeful mood of the main title song with a terse, explosive four-note “urban” motive, relentlessly repeated by pounding piano octaves.
Little Grease Ball/Flight
After an argument with his father, an eight-year-old Rocco “Rocky” Barbella (Terry Rangno) encounters two police officers. As the boy escapes their grip, a skittering passage for strings, percussion and piano breaks out. It calms down briefly and yields to a grim line for low strings when one of the cops predicts that the “little grease ball” will be in even deeper trouble 10 years down the road. A harp glissando marks the passage of time, and the camera catches the adult Rocky (Paul Newman) still running from the law. A brutal development of the four-note “urban” motive from “‘L’ Train” for full orchestra adds tension to his desperate flight, subsiding on tremolo strings and solo bassoon when he reaches the safety of his Lower East Side tenement.
31. F.B.I.
The film uses no underscore as it chronicles Rocky’s escalating trouble with the law and his multiple (and ever more serious) incarcerations. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” accompanies Rocky as he walks out of Rikers Island prison—a free man determined to better his life at last—but both the music and Rocky’s hopes for the future are abruptly cut short when two F.B.I. agents approach and inform him that he has been drafted.
The army is no better a fit for Rocky than prison—he goes AWOL after decking a superior officer. While on the lam for four months, Rocky follows the advice of fellow con Frankie Peppo (Robert Loggia) and visits Stillman’s Gym in New York looking for work. After Lou Stillman (Matt Crowley) hires him as a fighter, he begins a successful series of low-key bouts under the pseudonym “Graziano”—until two army detectives arrive to arrest him. Kaper’s (ultimately unused) cue at first explores his four-note “urban” motive with somber woodwinds and low strings, bringing additional tension to the scene. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” on solo oboe adds a bit of humanizing warmth as Rocky asks his trainer, Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), to send his accumulated winnings to his mother.
32. Fight Montage
At a court-martial, Rocky receives a dishonorable discharge—and a one-year sentence to Leavenworth. Sgt. John Hyland (Judson Pratt), coordinator of the prison’s boxing squad, discovers Rocky’s potential as a fighter and offers to train him as a professional boxer. Once released from prison, Rocky returns to the ring and begins a series of triumphs chronicled in a montage of fight footage and shots of posters announcing each match. Kaper throws his own punches in a pugnacious orchestral cue that develops “Somebody Up There Likes Me” with pounding accents and triumphant fanfares.
33. See Me Fight
Rocky’s sister (Donna Jo Gribble) introduces him to her friend Norma Unger (Pier Angeli), initiating an awkward courtship. While on a movie date (see track 41), Rocky becomes impatient with the film’s hokey plot and dialogue and insists upon leaving, prompting an argument. When Norma accuses Rocky of being uncomfortable with expressions of love, he asks her to come watch him fight. At first she protests, but agrees to watch him train when he promises she will not see anyone get hurt. Kaper composed a serious and somber development of “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” which would have provided additional gravitas to the scene, but the completed film omits the cue. The orchestration briefly thins to solo strings at the moment Norma begins to soften, and the final abrupt accent coincides with a cut to the gym and a close-up of Rocky’s powerful gloves pummeling a sparring partner.
34. Never
Norma shows up at the gym but Stillman scares her off. Rocky spends the rest of the day looking for her and waits outside her home in the rain until she arrives late at night. They argue, but he promises never to get into trouble again. Kaper’s yearning and pleading, string-soaked development of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” supports the couple’s search for mutual understanding. They kiss and make up, but Rocky suddenly realizes he is in trouble again—while waiting for her, he has forgotten to show up for a fight.
35. Courthouse
Cohen, convinced that Norma poses a distraction to Rocky, encourages him to marry her and settle down to family life. As the couple sits outside the courthouse, Rocky tries to delay tying the knot. Whimsical woodwinds play with “Somebody Up There Likes Me” while Norma tells Rocky that the only reason not to marry her is if he does not love her. Caressing strings build the tension until, led by a harp glissando and poignant violin solo, the couple run up the courthouse steps, accompanied by a triumphant statement of “Somebody.”
Newspaper headlines trumpet Rocky’s growing fame, accompanied by fanfares derived from “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” These alternate with scenes of domesticity, including the birth of his baby, scored by more fanciful developments of the same theme.
36. Definitely
After a series of successful bouts, Rocky suffers a vicious defeat at the hands of reigning middleweight champion Tony Zale (Courtland Shephard). When Rocky returns home from the match, Norma (who now realizes that boxing is Rocky’s life) rebukes him for the loss and encourages him to come back fighting. Inspired, Rocky takes her in his arms and kisses her, saying, “That ain’t what I’m gonna do to Tony Zale—definitely.” A solo cello renders a tender variation of “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” which bows out quickly as the scene shifts back to Stillman’s Gym.
Frankie Peppo, now released from prison, approaches Rocky and asks to meet with him in a bar (see tracks 42 and 43), where he explains that his business associates want Rocky to take a dive in his next fight—or else they will expose his past (including his year of hard labor at Leavenworth, about which Norma remains ignorant). Rocky refuses, but the encounter with Peppo haunts him. Kaper’s four-note “urban” motive emphasizes Peppo’s ominous presence, followed by tremolo strings and disturbing piano riffs as Rocky awakes from a nightmare.
37. Fight Off
Rocky declines to throw the fight, but instead feigns back pain and calls off the bout. A newspaper headline announces the cancellation, accompanied by a combative orchestral outburst, with a sub-heading explaining that Rocky will recuperate with his family in Florida. As Rocky and Norma drive through New York City after returning from the vacation, a relaxed string development of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” takes an unsettling turn when two detectives pull them over and ask Rocky to visit the District Attorney’s office; the finished film dials out the music at 0:32.
38. Headlines
Investigators question Rocky about his failure to report the bribery attempt, but even when brought face-to-face with Peppo and his associates, he refuses to identify them. An ominous development of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” with pounding timpani accents reinforces a series of newspaper headlines revealing Rocky’s legal troubles.
Fix and A Thief Again
The New York Boxing Commission revokes Rocky’s license and cancels his fight with Tony Zale. A somber and angst-ridden development of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” underscores his grief, followed by the four-note “urban” motive as Norma asks the media: “What does he have to do to please them—become a thief again?” The cue crescendos to a conclusion as a headline trumpets news of his dishonorable discharge and stint in Leavenworth.
A reprieve comes in the form of an offer from the Illinois Boxing Commission, which will allow Rocky to fight Zale in Chicago, but Rocky worries that he will never be recognized as a legitimate fighter. He argues with Norma and his manager in a Chicago hotel room, then storms out angrily. Anguished string phrases lead to a brief statement of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” as Rocky flies back to New York.
39. Somebody Up There Likes Me—Walking Sequence
Confused and conflicted, Rocky walks the street of New York, passing by typical urban scenes, including a homeless drunk sleeping on a curb, lovers in an alley and police rounding up a group of teens. A gentle jazz version of “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” arranged and conducted by Skip Martin, plays as a soothing nocturne while Rocky makes his way home. There he confronts his alcoholic father, who in a dramatic (but unscored) scene tells Rocky to go back to Chicago and make something good of himself. “Be a champ, like I never was!”
40. End Cast
After defeating Zale in Chicago, Rocky receives a hero’s welcome—complete with ticker-tape parade—in New York. Although he tells Norma he will not always be a world champ, he knows he has won something that no one can ever take from him: self-respect. Perry Como’s vocal (not included here—see track 44) wraps up the film, followed by an optimistic, up-tempo reading of the “Somebody Up There Likes Me” melody for the concluding actor credits. John Green conducted this revised version on June 14, replacing a jazzier, more flippant arrangement recorded by Miklós Rózsa two weeks earlier (see track 45).

Bonus Tracks

41. Alice & Dave
Rocky takes Norma to the movies, and Kaper reinforces the picture-within-the-picture’s saccharine dialogue with this bit of string-soaked Hollywood romance.
42. Bribe #1 (Dinner for Three)
When Rocky meets Peppo for a drink, this jazz piece (arranged and conducted by Skip Martin) plays in the background. Kaper used the same tune (which comes from Kaper’s score for A Life of Her Own) in Her Twelve Men (disc 1, track 27); only about 0:45 of the cue appears in Somebody.
43. Bribe #2
Shortly after “Bribe #1” concludes, this second source jazz cue picks up and plays until the end of the scene.
44. Main Title Lead In
Atypically, Kaper provides no attention-getting music for Leo’s roar at the beginning of the film. Instead, a quiet introduction (conducted by Rózsa) accompanies an introductory title card in which Graziano declares: “This is the way I remember it…definitely.” In the film, this leads directly into Como’s vocal.
End Title Sweetener
John Green conducted this “sweetener” for Como’s closing vocal on June 14, subsequently laid over the singer’s pre-existing recording—and likely intended to add a cinematic “punch” to the conclusion of the film.
45. End Cast
Rózsa conducted this up-tempo, big band setting of the title song, arranged by Skip Martin, on June 1; the finished film replaced it with a different musical perspective (see track 40).
46. End Cast—New
In the same June 14 session at which he recorded the film version of “End Cast” (track 40), Green also conducted this recording of the same cue that omitted the first eight bars. —