Where do I even begin to talk about Rocky? Its wide release was December 3rd, 1976, 20 days before I was born. Written by the then little known Sylvester Stallone, originally the studio wanted a bigger star for the title role, but Stallone wrote it for himself. The story of Stallone holding out against big money offers to have someone else play the lead has been exaggerated a bit, but it was still a big chance to cast an unknown. At the time no one could have ever guessed this low budget movie with a no name actor would become a true global phenomenon. Rocky went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (John Avildsen) and Best Editing. Talia Shire, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith also received nominations.
Basically Rocky is a street version of Cinderella. Boxing champion Apollo Creed is set to have a bout on January 1st, 1976, which was Bicentennial Day, the 200th anniversary of America. The fight is to be in Philadelphia, where the American Constitution was signed. Creed’s opponent pulls out because of an injury, and seemingly no other contenders are available. Creed comes up with the idea of, in the spirit of America and the Bi-centennial, giving a local underdog a shot at the title. He picks Rocky Balboa out of a book because Balboa gave himself the nickname the Italian Stallion. Creed liked the name, musing that America was discovered by the Italian Columbus. You could also read into this that to succeed in America you need a gimmick, but it also fit into the idea of the country. 1976 was not only the bi-centennial, but also the year a peanut farmer from Georgia became the President of the United States. It fit this idea of the spirit of America.
Rocky is one of the few movies where the inciting incident doesn’t happen until an hour into the film (The only other one I can think of is 2010’s Book of Eli). Its first hour is spent on character development and world building. The first image we see in this film is Jesus Christ. Stallone has said maybe it’s a little heavy handed, but it’s suggesting Rocky is the next one to be saved, to go on this journey. The opening scene is our main character fighting in a small time boxing club called Resurrection Athletic Club (with Jesus painted on the wall). He wins the fight, but in a way it doesn’t matter. He’s still beat up, get’s about $40, after which he asks “When can I fight again?” After this he walks home over which we see the opening credits.
While Rocky is known for being a positive and inspirational film, the world of Rocky is very dark and bleak, arguably taking place in the same world of 1970s urban decay as more pessimistic films of the era like Death Wish or 1976‘s Taxi Driver. The difference is Rocky himself is not a dark character, he’s a genuinely good person, almost like a Captain America or even a Superman, but he’s birthed in a dark environment. In his apartment we see brass knuckles and a machete. While Rocky is rated PG, it is evident that the character obviously has R rated violence in his life.
Looking at Stallone’s later work and then looking at Rocky, it almost seems like a totally different actor. When filming this movie, for all intents and purposes, Stallone’s life was on the line, and it shows. We see this young hungry actor taking his shot and it paid off. For a brief moment he was taken seriously as an actor, some even called him the next Marlon Brando. Stallone was nominated for best original screenplay and best actor. He wouldn’t be nominated for acting again until Creed, making him only one of 6 people to be nominated for the same role twice. Also noteworthy is in 1976 the only people ever nominated for both acting and writing in the same film were Charlie Chaplin and Orson Wells.
Back to the movie, next we see the constant rejection and disrespect Rocky faces throughout his day. For example, it is evident no one he knows saw his fight last night. He goes to a pet store trying to impress Adrian, the pet store clerk, but is rejected. We should say a word about this character. Actress Talia Shire, who was also in the Godfather series, is a very attractive woman. It was a really gutsy move for her to play the role of an ugly duckling. It’s a very unglamorous part, and she makes it work. If Rocky were made today Adrian would be all hot, they’d give her glasses for the sexy nerd look, but they wouldn’t dare make it unglamorous. In this movie the character works, we see both Rocky and Adrian blossom from having love in their lives. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the later sequels is her character doesn’t have much going on. It’s actually one of the things the spinoff Creed out does Rocky in, the love interest in Creed is a more interesting character. Still, Talia Shire provided some of the only real acting as the series entered later installments.
Another rejection is faced at the local boxing gym, where he’s been kicked out of his own locker so another up and coming fighter can have it. This is our introduction to Mickey, the gruff old manager and gym owner, played by the late great Burgess Meredith. Sometimes you can tell a lot about a character by their first line. “Shut up!” is the first thing Mickey says in the movie. He has no respect for Balboa, and plays the part of a pseudo father who constantly disapproves of his son. He dismisses Rocky’s win against Spider Ricco and suggests he retire.
On the 25th anniversary DVD Stallone explained how Mickey represented someone that never lived up to their potential. In the year I turned 25, I left the first job I had coming out of college, which was a teaching position in the midwest. One phrase people often say to young people is “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” You never really grasp what this means until your older. As soon as I left that job my life took a turn for the worse, and then understanding what Mickey represented unfortunately clicked with me. Being too young to understand I had my whole life ahead of me, I was afraid of turning into Mickey, this bitter old man whose dreams never came true.
Eventually Rocky whoo’s Adrian over, and it’s no coincidence that the very next day he’s offered a shot with Apollo. Robert Mckee in Story writes about how if this were the opening scene, the audience would not have understood Rocky’s reaction. Rocky knows he’s a “ham and egger.” So when he’s offered the fight at the 60 minute mark he actually says no. The promoter figures this will get him fired, and has to con Rocky by appealing to his patriotism. This was a nuance I didn’t understand as a kid.
This leads to my favorite scene. Mickey comes to Rocky’s apartment and asks to be his manager. He tries to con him like a salesmen, smiling as he walks in the door, telling Rocky his dump is a nice place. He then goes on to tell stories of his brutal boxing days which are so captivating. Rocky knows he’s being worked over but doesn’t have it in him to just kick Mickey out. Eventually he does leave, and it is only then that Rocky just goes off on this really powerful monologue. Stallone explained there had to be some point where Rocky just let it all out. People think he‘s a “happy go lucky dumbell but he has a lot of rage in there, a lot of hurt, a lot of angst.” He calls out Mick for finally paying him some attention. My favorite line is “Talking about your prime. What about my prime Mick! Least you had a prime! I didn’t have no prime I didn’t have nothing.” Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but in some twisted way I felt like I could relate to it when I was younger. In our culture they sell the idea that your teenage years and your twenties is supposed to be the best time of your life. As I’d mentioned, at 25 things were getting rough for me, and my teenage years weren’t that great. So somehow I could relate to this “what about my prime, what about my good times” etc. Either way, it’s a great scene, great dialogue and two great performances. It may be Stallone’s shining moment as an actor.
Soon we get to the famous training montage where he runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. I’d been there as a kid, but a few years back I went back and hung out for an hour. It really is a genuine phenomenon. All day people of all ages and all walks of life run up those steps and raise their arms in the air.
Rocky is nearly a perfect movie. It’s small budget gives it a certain charm, the ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian that couldn’t afford extras, Rocky’s baggy robe, the poster with the wrong color shorts. This lack of budget does catch up with it at the end, as they didn’t have enough money for lots of extras for the big fight. The result is outside the ring the arena is really dark to hide the fact that it’s half empty. Early on they try to cover this with stock footage of a crowd but it looks really out of place.
Boxing purists probably cringe at most of these movies due to Rocky’s lack of actual boxing skill. The announcer says “In fact it just looks like Rocky is blocking the blows with his face.” By Rocky III it was a bit excessive, as he definitely should have picked up some skills by then. With this first movie it makes more sense, as that’s the whole point, that this guy has no skill but has this incredible determination to take everything the champ can dish out. Watch this scene.
Pure determination. I love at 1:45 where Apollo looks down and you hear the announcer saying “Apollo can’t believe it!” When Rocky gets back to his feet and says “Come on” while motioning with his hands, that’s the whole movie right there, this is life.
It wasn’t until ten years ago I realized the fight isn’t the most important scene of the movie. The 30th anniversary Rocky DVD has audio commentary by Stallone (the 25th had a extended video commentary with him). On it he describes the scene just after the famous training montage. Rocky goes to the Spectrum, and sees this arena that is so much grander than the dingy clubs he’s used to fighting in. He goes home and tells Adrian that he knows he can’t really win. Early on it’s established that no one ever lasted 15 rounds against Creed, which is what they call going the distance. Rocky says “it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head either, cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, see and that bell rings and I’m still standing. I’m gonna know for the first time in my life see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
On the commentary track Stallone says this scene is “one of the benchmarks of my life.” They had one take to do it, and “if lines had been fumbled or we had camera problems, it would have been been all over.” Stallone explains “without this scene, I don’t think the movie would have accomplished nearly what it set out to, even half of what it set out to accomplish, which is to show that a man given an opportunity, or a woman given an opportunity to express themselves fully even though they know that they’re going to be defeated, but in that defeat there can be glory, personal glory. And that’s what I think so many people in the world hunger for, is the opportunity to rise or fail on their own abilities, just given the chance.”
If I may talk about myself for a moment, I was born in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. My mother finished high school but my father didn’t. My mother pretty much raised me by herself and fortunately I was the first in my family to go to college. As I mentioned my first job was teaching in the midwest, and after I left I had a rough time for a few years. As I mentioned in my Rocky Balboa piece, I ended up teaching in Korea. I suppose over there I got to have my “prime” and my good times. After doing that, I decided to go back to that very first teaching job I had when I was 22. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did it, and I ended up getting some success and some recognition out of it, like when I got Teacher of the Year in 2015
This past year was difficult for a lot of reasons. While I’m still at that first job I had, in the spring I was thinking of doing one more year, but I wasn’t sure if I had it in me. There were a lot of different things getting to me and I’d considered leaving. In all honesty I thought about that scene, and realized this was my going the distance moment. This is that one more round, finishing what I started, seeing this through to the end.
Pop culture is entertainment to pass the time, we enjoy it, maybe remember it, and go on with our day. Truly great art genuinely affects our lives, and it’s probably too late for any other movie to affect me so personally. The only other one that was probably even close was Rocky Balboa. It’s just so ingrained in my life, to the point it’s something I try to live out. I write as a hobby, and when I sell my books as shows or when I read poems on a stage etc, I see it as taking my shot. No one owes us any fame or fortune, but we have the right to try. So as both Rocky and I turn 40, I like to think I did alright with my life. I didn’t turn out to be just another bum from the neighborhood, and I’m going my distance.
Happy Birthday Rocky