Sylvester Stallone meets his destiny in this classic romantic sports drama.
Who made it?: John G. Avildsen (Director), Sylvester Stallone (Writer), Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler (Producers), United Artists.
Who’s in it?: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Joe Spinell.
Tagline: “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.”
IMDb rating: 8.1/10.
Sylvester Stallone had a lot in common with Mr. Balboa in the early 70s, and the story of Rocky‘s making has slipped into near-apocryphal legend, much like the big softie that is our title character. Practically penniless, Stallone was living in squalor and struggling to make a name for himself as an actor. Determined to succeed, he moved into writing screenplays catered to his own abilities, hitting paydirt with the story of a down-on-his-luck slugger given the chance of a lifetime. Stallone just wouldn’t give it up unless he starred, and the producers finally relented. Little did they all know that they were sitting on a franchise that would spawn five sequels, a spin-off and a career for Stallone that is still happily going today.
Such a story perfectly mirrors the fairytale of the narrative itself, and it might have been one of the many reasons why Rocky took home the Best Picture Oscar in 1976. Scorsese should have won it for Taxi Driver, but forty years since this low-budget “boxing” flick took home the prize, it remains one of the most inspirational sports movies of all time. If Swingers taught us how to get over past relationships, then Rocky never fails to make us want to put on a tatty hoodie and some Converse…
Sport flicks are often tedious to me. How many truly awful ones have you seen where the victories seem forced and the speeches hollow? Many, many films have even aped the now-tired Rocky formula, so why does this one particular picture still deserve respect? Because Stallone was truly punching above his weight here, and because Rocky is anything but a movie about boxing. This is a story about a man breaking free from the drudgery of his pitiful existence, in this case a downtrodden Philadelphia, and making something better of himself. If the film was headlined by a bankable Hollywood type, there’s no doubt in my mind that Rocky would have been long forgotten. Director John G. Avildsen takes Stallone’s sincere turn as the brute with a heart of gold and places it in a world that feels grounded, real and convincingly grim. Even the fist-pumping coda is laced with a sense of injustice.
It’s tough to imagine now but the early trailers referred to Stallone as a new-age Marlon Brando, and it isn’t hard to see why. You feel Balboa would have been at home in On the Waterfront. He could have been a contender, sure, but as his crotchety trainer Mickey (the peerless Burgess Meredith) tells him, he’s just a bum who chooses to waste his talents. He’s also busting thumbs for loan shark Gazzo (Joe Spinell), a job he’s not particularly good at. Even his social life is a shambles with his one true friend, Paulie (Burt Young), being a loud, disruptive, caustic slob of a man. We feel Rocky only gives him the time of day because of his sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), a wallflower who wouldn’t be caught dead at a boxing match let alone in public. The big lug’s attempts to win her heart is the main focus of Rocky, but never once do the romantic aspects give way to syrupy convention.
Consider the scene following their awkward first date, when Rocky has convinced her to come up to his apartment. There’s beer bottles stuffed into his sofa, a machete acting as a coat-hanger, and a general lack of cleanliness that would make many women run a mile. But where is she going to go? Where is he going to go? They’re two lost souls discarded by the universe who come together and give each other the power they need. Avildsen and Stallone ensure that we actually give a shit about this schlub before it all comes to a head in the ring. I can’t say the same for much of the sequels.
I’ve always loved the idea that Rocky’s opportunity comes to him by sheer chance, too. He’s never won a title worth a damn, but if it wasn’t for his self-styled moniker “The Italian Stallion”, he might have very well spent the rest of his days hanging out around street corners singing songs with the other bums. He is plucked out of obscurity by gifted black opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for a bicentennial fight. Didn’t an Italian discover America, after all? The guy’s chutzpah is as uproarious as his confidence. Whilst Rocky looks up to Apollo as a great fighter, Creed views him as a small-time “Southpaw” and a pushover. How wrong he is…
There’s a chance that Rocky will be too slow and uneventful for newbies in 2016, but there’s a real beauty to the way it takes the time to flesh-out these personalities. Balboa’s sudden success brings out the best and worst in his friends, particularly Paulie who never misses a chance to make a buck on his name. Even Mickey changes heart, and my favourite non-montage sequence in the film is when the humbled trainer practically begs for a second chance; the late Meredith confirming why he was a great actor in a heartbreaking plee for acceptance. Like Rocky, his best days are behind him, but Balboa just can’t turn him down. It’s impossible not to love this dim-witted pugilist.
Avildsen gives everything a fitting documentary sheen aided by the revolutionary work of Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown. It frees up the shot-on-sticks aesthetic and enables us to follow Rocky’s infamous training with a degree of credibility. There’s still a real rush climbing those museum steps with Rocky as the sun sets over Philly; that image of him at the summit, arms aloft triumphantly, is surely one of the most beautiful in cinema. If there’s anything dated about the filmmaking, it would be composer Bill Conti’s signature “Gonna Fly Now,” but even that manages to make a little low-budget movie seem heartfelt and grandiose. Rocky is pure street poetry told on an intimate canvas and it nails every last beat.
Should it have gotten that golden statuette back in ’76? Perhaps not, but in my mind, Rocky only gets better over time. This is surely one of the best “feel-good” movies ever made, with characters that have more than stood the test of time and an artistic integrity that only part two and the epitaph, Rocky Balboa, could match. It is simultaneously the blueprint for how to make your sports movie resonate and a reminder that no matter how low down the totem pole you are, you can still succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
Race you to the top of the steps…
- When shooting the scenes in the meat-locker where he punches the slabs of beef, Stallone punched the meat so hard for so long that he flattened out his knuckles. To this day, when he makes a fist, his knuckles are completely level.
- According to Burt Young, during filming of the scene where Paulie walks home drunk, an actual drunk wandered onto the location and told Young he wasn’t acting drunk convincingly, so Young asked the man to demonstrate it. Young then copied the man’s actions for the scene.
- The first sports film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
- Most of the scenes of Rocky jogging through Philadelphia were shot guerrilla-style, with no permits, no equipment and no extras. The shot were he runs past the moored boat for example; the crew were simply driving by the docks and director Avildsen saw the boat and thought it would make a good visual, so he had Stallone simply get out of the van and run along the quays whilst Avildsen himself filmed from the side door. A similar story concerns the famous shot of Rocky jogging through the food market. As he runs, the stall keepers and the people on the sidewalks can clearly be seen looking at him in bemusement. Whilst this works in the context of the film to suggest they’re looking at Rocky, in reality, they had no idea why this man was running up and down the road being filmed from a van. During this scene, the famous shot where the stall-owner throws Rocky an orange was completely improvised by the stall owner-himself, who had no idea that a movie was being filmed and that he would be in it.