Rocky, the 1976 film in which a down on his luck boxer gets an improbable shot at the World Championship, and made a superstar and eventual Hollywood legend into its star and writer Sylvester Stallone, celebrates its 40th anniversary today.
Originally released in the United States on November 21, 1976, Rocky gave a jolting uppercut to the industry that was only just handling what a true blockbuster was thanks to the overwhelming success of JAWS, released about 15 months prior. Before that, films in Hollywood that weren’t Best Picture winners were gritty and tough with uneasy and uncensored narratives, awash with characters and plots that didn’t always end sunny and resolute. With Rocky, there was a re-ushering in the industry and the theaters of the type of story that hadn’t existed since the heyday of these types of films churned out in the 1940s, where boxers were Palooka Joe-style guys who had mob ties and odds that they always overcame by the last reel. Whereas the genre became a dried-up dime a dozen by the mid-20th century, Rocky was a fresh jolt in the arm of Hollywood. Only the most curmudgeonly critics couldn’t be swayed by their built-in cynicism to give it the free pass of the fresh air that it deserved for being the kind of necessarily for the times throwback film that it was.
It’s still incredible in every way to watch Stallone’s performance as Rocky Balboa, who was getting to know his own confidence and drive as the struggling washed-up boxer we meet as the film begins, who’s taken on the load for others, such as shy Adrian, his crush and eventual girlfriend; her rough and gruff brother Paulie; and, most importantly, the audience. It’s a load the character of Balboa and the real-life flesh and blood Sylvester Stallone is more than happy to take on. Nothing is more emblematic of just how much Stallone’s Balboa has taken on his shoulders until his breakdown in his home when crusty old Mickey arrives. Until then, the 70-something year old Mickey had always treated Balboa like a third-rate pug loser, but once Rocky gets the shot at the title, even at his advanced age, the trainer shows up at his house instantly, like a bullet out of a gun, there to offer his services. At first, Rocky gives back the defensive abusive style Mickey had given him for years in what is perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, and certainly one that got Stallone the Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. But, finally, having a realization of how much he needs Mickey, Rocky reconciles and starts a bond anew between the two of them, and another dimension is broken in the “fighter/manager” stereotype that permeated boxing films decades past.
Channeling in a way Budd Shulberg’s epic story On the Waterfront in terms of heightened spirt and the epic performance by Marlon Brando, it seems like such a glass window into seeing the real Stallone, as he has his “I coulda been a contenda” moment in the scene with Mickey, as well as in other scenes (such as when he admits to Adrian that all he wants to do is to not even win against the slickly professional Apollo Creed, but to simply “go the distance”).
It’s done with a frank brashness and tender controlled ferocity by Stallone as Balboa, who is — and this is one of the most beautiful aspects of the character, who many have erroneously called two dimensional over the years — always able to parlay the audience’s emotions to his center, no matter what emotion the character is going through. There’s a sympathy that Stallone gives Rocky not out of ego, but necessity for the audience’s desire. Even early on as this first motion picture, Stallone had a canny sense that to make the character of Rocky Balboa a jaunty almost buffoon in the greatest possible way, and it strangely created a kind of sad sack who you still wouldn’t want to fuck with, someone who is truthful and reliable and earnest and loyal, and an ultimately overall good soul. And by manifesting all those good vibes on screen that the character radiates and emanates, it creates a positive influence for the narrative and characters around him, and ultimately, the audience and the film itself.
“Gonna Fly Now,” the theme song of Rocky, is without question one of the top five most instantly recognizable themes in cinema history. The brassy arrangement by Bill Conti, who was already a well known and established practitioner of his craft, but was propelled even further by the success of Rocky, instantly brings spirit to the film and the audience with the theme. There’s still something that it does to the DNA whenever one hears the song coupled with the action on screen, that quicksilver but so in the moment that the viewer gets engaged in when they see Rocky running, training and especially running up the steps, a moment as classic and storied as “Here’s Looking at You Kid” or “Gonna Make Him an Offer He Can’t Refuse.” And it is that kind of old Hollywood style B-movie that Rocky doesn’t try to feel embarrassed by, but quite the contrary, actually uses it to its advantage. Strangely enough, it was one of the last “New Hollywood” early 70s style downer films with the only alternate is that it had an ending that was uplifting. Other than that, the film in many ways resembles something Robert Altman or Peter Bogdanovich might have tackled, albeit darker and more controlled.
The director who was chosen, John Avildsen (who won an Academy Award for Best Director for Rocky), creates a kind of air tight atmosphere for the main characters in a non suffocating way, they are completely engrossed and milling in their own environment. Other people who come in and out of the Rocky-Adrian-Paulie and even Mickey circle are more or less characters on the fringe; even in this early stage, Apollo Creed is more of a Muhammad Ali retread and not the character with a little more dimension and scope in the Rocky sequels. Even during the final climactic bout, the film still feels small and intimate in a way, because we see it through the perspectives of Rocky and Adrian and not the big, huge spectacle it is, taking place in a sold out Philadelphia Spectrum. It’s Stallone’s script and especially his performance, coupled with the performances of Talia Shire, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith as Adrian, Paulie and Mickey respectively, all nominated for Academy Awards, that keeps Rocky airy yet still totally absorbing and entertaining and elevates it much higher than a simple on paper boxing film.
The final climactic championship bout puts the film over the top and it more than delivers the kind of slow burn anticipation the viewer experiences waiting for it. We are on Rocky’s side long before the bell is rung to start Round One, and the fight, which at first is underestimated by Creed, who allows his carelessness and underestimation of Rocky to almost lose the fight in the first round, is a powerful piece of filmmaking, aided and abetted by crisp editing, fanciful and spry boxing choreography, the use of the Steadicam (at the time, one of the very first films to use it), and the expert touch of Conti’s score, which is influenced by intense classical music passages. It’s the music, especially during the “to the 15th round brutal montage,” scored as if Brahms or Beethoven was given an metaphoric electric guitar and an amp, that gives the picture lift, albeit through a slingshot propulsion. He’s respectful of the genre, but Conti applies a contemporary musical attitude much like the fight itself. When it’s done, and leads right into the sudden, wallop to the chest exhilaration of the finale, which is another classic cinema sequence, the viewer, as Rocky, Adrian, and even Apollo Creed (at least until the sequel) are redeemed in their own right, purified, victorious. This is a film that exemplifies the true meaning of the word “small victories.”
Watching Rocky now, there’s so much hindsight that’s applied before one even presses the Play button on the Blu-Ray player that it’s hard not to take it a little more seriously, because of the even more airiness and even dare say silliness that follows and becomes so essential to the thread of the plots and narrative of the next five films that follow this Oscar winner. But once one puts aside the preconceived notions and falls submissive to the films many charms and gritty seduction, one is able to rediscover it again and realize what a wonderful ragtag masterpiece the film really is, the word masterpiece only applicable to this first film in the franchise (although the second, third and sixth film are highlights in the pack).
Rocky is still such a classic film that jumpstarted a genre that made the industry billions and Stallone a superstar. The (pun intended) one-two punch Rocky delivers is its ability to act as an underdog, for the underdog. Those who loved the film and yet who weren’t underdogs in life learned from the film how to cheer and empathize for one. There’s so many ways Rocky touches the emotional senses, even to this day, how it’s able to easily push the right buttons and often. It’s a true pillar of success indebted to the talent of Avildsen, Stallone, and the stellar cast, that Rocky hits the target each and every viewing. Can other Academy Award Best Picture winning films still command the same responses? Rocky remains unique and special, a true film that from another age put in a time that didn’t realize how much it needed a film like it, until it came along. The climate is kind of like that again, now 40 years later, which makes for a perfect time to revisit Rocky, a true American classic, which really exemplifies the legend “feel good” in only the most top shelf and sophisticated ways.