Most of us have a "workout playlist" – rousing songs that inspire us to mentally reframe ourselves as extraordinary athletes and torture our own ordinary bodies. (I prefer soothing Western classical tunes because there's something Tarantino-like about the sound not matching my bloodshed of action). The headphones, for some, are more important than good sneakers. This musical nature of physical exertion is derived from an age-old cinematic tradition: the "training montage".
An elaborately assembled sequence of training shots in ascending order of intensity and competence, you can smell (or hear) this montage coming from a mile away. The theme it's scored to invariably becomes an instant classic, an anthem of triumph. The hero practically goes from 0 to 100 in no time – and the editing, the rhythm, the pace, the context and the duration of each frame are carefully calibrated to compress months of hard labour into a few minutes of all-out transformation. There's an art to the method of crafting this adrenalin rush. And even though it's not only limited to a single genre – variations feature in superhero films like Batman Begins, dance dramas like Dirty Dancing and Footloose, even action movies like Armageddon – the training montage is essentially the beating heart of a quintessential sports movie.
It may be a narrative cliche, but if done well and placed correctly, the training montage becomes the official calling card of a great sports movie. Here, then, are eight of my favourites, in no particular order:
If I were to treat each Rocky movie differently, they'd take up four individual spots on a list that deserves versatility. So I'm going to do the honourable thing here by clubbing them together. The Rocky franchise is the founding father of the training montage. At times, I wonder if sport even existed before Bill Conti's Gonna Fly Now, otherwise known as "the Rocky theme," was composed. In each of the first four films – as well as in Rocky Balboa (2007) – the score becomes a sensory emotion. And the images, a time-lapse pattern for the ages: bleak dawn, grey tracksuit, industrial routes, All-Star shoes (!), the meat-punching, the chicken-chasing, the heavy jogging, the one-handed push-ups, the rope-skipping, and then that final burst – where the camera strains to keep up with Sylvester Stallone's windy gallop – culminating in the 72-step sprint leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The tempo of his growing power is such that the viewer is compelled to feel the surge of victory even before the first round. My personal favourite is the montage from Rocky IV, where Balboa invokes his inner Wolverine and trains in the snowy Soviet wilderness like a Russian while his murderous Russian opponent Ivan Drago trains indoors like an American. The anthem, John Cafferty's Hearts On Fire, further informs Stallone's grieving-friend-meets-rugged-caveman aura. A close second is Creed, where Michael B. Jordan allows the series to come full circle by training under Balboa in a half-reverential, half-tragic montage of exquisite closure.
Four Jamaican men wake up in snowy Calgary. "Rise and shine!" they chant, unconvincingly, while jolting their obese American coach out of bed. Lock Stock and Barrel's Rise Above It kicks off their day. The "acclimatization" of this unlikely national bobsled team becomes a ragtag training montage – deceptively clever beneath the comedy of it all, especially in the way the coach (John Candy) wryly encourages them (weights, pull-ups, frigid jogs, skating practice) with zero expectations. You can sense that both coach and aspiring Olympians are warming up to each other with every repetition of routine. The dramatic effect of a montage is also defined by the scenes it follows. In this case, the men from the sunshine islands are laughed off the bobsled track; the coach looks more embarrassed than during his own disgraced medal-stripping past. Rockbottom. The rise, then, is amplified – only to culminate in the best scene of the film, the qualifying trials.
Sanju goes from slacker to cracker in this coming-of-age montage; an intense instrumental version of Yahan Ke Hum Sikandar scores his month-long training routine. What was initially a playful college song morphs into a focused anthem. The shots are nothing extraordinary, but the journey is – Sanju struggles, suffers, the calendar pages turn, the clock is ticking, Sanju gets stronger, faster, more determined, and starts cycling with ankle-weights. His crunches get quicker, and his sweat slicker. What distinguishes this montage from others is its fierce individualism – we see a drifter finding direction as well as a boy finally recognizing the unconditional love of the girl who supports him. He falls for her and stops falling in life. By the time the dreaded date arrives, Sanjay Lal Sharma has a headstart in his own race to the finish line.
Christian Bale's commitment to his craft is widely documented – for instance, he lost a ton of weight to play the drug-addicted brother of an underdog athlete here, which in turn won him a supporting-actor Oscar. But Mark Wahlberg's titular performance as Massachusetts welterweight hero Micky Ward in David O'Russell's boxing drama is most impressive during the montages – when his carefully sculpted physicality truly comes forth. It's never easy in the shadow of Bale, but Wahlberg is no chump. Perhaps the most underrated of them is a sleepy sequence scored to Red Hot Chilli Peppers' Strip My Mind, an unusually relaxed "anthem" for a training session. But it's the status of this session that warrants a fresh soundtrack – Ward is starting over, stripped of an oppressive family, easing into a new legacy. He leaves his house at dawn, rests his sore knuckles in a bag of rice, jogs in a sweatshirt, skips like a demon. The cutaways to his brother – who is in prison simultaneously working up a sweat – look organic and strangely joined at the hip. Like siblings.
Between Gavin O'Connor's two finest sports movies (Miracle and Warrior), I prefer this montage because of the philosophy that upends the two-part narrative of the sequence. And not least because it also inspired the "India" moment from Chak De! India. Head ice hockey coach of the U.S. national team Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) ruthlessly trains the elite group of 18 university players, promising them that they will be the "best conditioned" if not the best team in the upcoming Olympics. The boys become men over a draining collage of drills that exhausts viewers; the methodical cutaways of Herb imposing his authority lend an unnerving edge. Every other shot has him asking a breathless player to introduce himself – but they use the name-hometown-team format. We only find out what Herb wants to hear after a meek warm-up game; he drags them back to practice after the final buzzer. "Again" becomes his anthem as they repeat the 'Herbie' drill, until one of them finally mentions "USA" as his team. It's the name on your front, not your back, Herb mumbles, before ending the drill – thus setting the stage for Shah Rukh Khan to popularize the moment on Indian screens three years later.
Two words: Chale Chalo. The Rahman anthem literally advertises underdog grit with its music and lyrics, well in line with how an emotional 19th-century drought-stricken village might express itself in the face of adversity. The villagers, led by a bronzed Aamir Khan, unite in a heightened display of teamwork, wisdom and synchronization of sentiment. Their "cricket practice" begins with the iconic image of their silhouettes speeding up a hill at dawn, before they integrate training into their daily routine. What they lack in skill, they make up with chest-beating optimism, not singing the song so much as declaring their vows to one another. In many ways, Chale Chalo is a musical monologue – the kind of speech a coach gives his team before a crucial game but in verse. The cult status of the song was further evidenced in how rom-com Kal Ho Naa Ho, a mere two years later, did a spoof featuring a pumped-up Indian family preparing to renovate their restaurant in Manhattan.
It's only fitting that Moneyball – a sports film about a jaded general manager embracing an analytical (sabermetrics) approach to modern baseball – features the most cerebral montage of the lot. Known simply as "the streak," this isn't a training montage so much as a slow-burn explosion. The actual training precedes this, where we see the seniors of the team mentoring the newcomers, the coach and his new "numbers guy" speaking to different members, glitchy practice sessions, unorthodox plays and a general rise in confidence. But it's the Oakland Athletics' famous streak of 20 straight wins that takes glorious form in a sequence that seamlessly combines live commentary, archival footage, news clips, crowd reactions, Brad Pitt's pensive face and Mychael Danna's beautifully sneaky score. Before we know it, the moment of the film becomes a moment in history. It is an editing masterclass of buildup, mood and emotion, by the end of which the 20th game assumes the goosebumpy tension of a World Championship final.
Aamir Khan completes his montage trilogy by going from participant in the previous titles to enforcer in Nitesh Tiwari's wrestling biopic. Dangal is essentially a giant training montage in the form of a film. But its best is reserved for the very beginning – the joyful Haanikaarak Bapu scores the teenage sisters' joyless initiation into the world of professional wrestling. The strict patriarch, played by Khan, supervises the girls' brutal dawn-to-dusk routine – "sacrifice" is etched deep on their faces as they are trained to forsake the luxury of golgappas and embrace a life of nutrition and back-breaking labour. They fall asleep in school, beg for relief from their mother, fear their father and look at the freedom of other childhoods with envy. This is usually a bleak existence, but this montage has a sarcastic touch – their femininity is challenged, but their young spirit is too restless to be broken. Little Geeta and Babita Phogat look at their old man like he is both the destroyer and motivator of dreams. They're shackled by the demands of elite sport, but also breaking free from the shackles of traditional womanhood.
The Karate Kid: Mr. Miyagi moulds his American student with the most un-bodily routine, concentrating on muscle memory and instinct rather than raw power.
Million Dollar Baby: There's music in the way Hillary Swank absorbs Clint Eastwood's lessons – from beach runs to midnight crunches to practicing her footwork while waitressing – while Morgan Freeman's divine voiceover does the rest.
Seabiscuit: One can almost look past Tobey Maguire's passive face as the horse auditions him instead of vice versa in a free-spirited ride through the woods.