Thursday, September 24, 2009

1976 - Rocky

I have recently begun work as an usher for an off-Broadway theatre that happens to be in the same building as the rehearsal studios used by some of Broadway's major shows, so it's now time for the second instalment of "Famous People Matt Has Bumped Into". Although, this will certainly be briefer than the previous episode.

The elevator is the main location of action. I have shared it once with Bebe Neuwirth (in New York rehearsing the new musical adaptation of The Addams Family) and a second time with Julia Stiles (rehearsing David Mamet's Oleanna). I also spied Nathan Lane entering the building, complete with Gomez Addams moustache.

On the one hand, all these celebrity encounters are a little disheartening, certainly humbling. There's a definite impatience in watching actors going to work as I show theatre-goers to their seats. But on the other hand, it is fun to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. However misguided, it still makes me feel closer to the action.

As does this absurd project I'm working on. Absurd but inspiring. And yesterday, I watched one of the more inspiring entries, a nominee from 1976...

John G. Avildsen
Sylvester Stallone
Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director

The film that spawned a thousand sequels, Rocky just exudes inspiration. From the moment, the opening credits begin - no, from the moment the DVD menu begins - Bill Conti's familiar theme song sets the mood perfectly. In fact, you should listen to it while you read this. Trust me, it'll make you feel good.

Rocky Balboa is a no-name boxer from Philadelphia, earning extra cash by attempting to be a thug for a loan shark. But since he doesn't want to break people's thumbs, he has about as much success as a heavy as he does as a boxer, which is to say not a lot. His only friend is Paulie, a meat packer with some serious anger management issues. And he's sweet on Paulie's sister, Adrian, an extremely shy assistant at a pet shop store. Meanwhile, the current and undefeated heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed, is left without an opponent for his next big fight, so he decides to give an unknown a shot at the title. Lo and behold, Rocky is the chosen one and he now has a chance to prove that he's not the bum he and everyone else thinks he is.

Without a doubt, this movie is best described as an inspirational story. It's feel-good at its feel-best. And that famous music you're listening to (you are listening to it, right?) is a big part of that, even if it slips into some cheesy disco territory at times. It is the 1970s, after all. The film becomes a tad melodramatic on occasion, but for the most part, it's very gritty in its naturalism, depicting the hard times of its characters' lives.

One thing that becomes very clear when watching Rocky is just how ridiculous a sport boxing really is, especially during the final fight scene. It literally just boils down to two men trying their best to cause as much pain as possible in each other. I understand there's probably some strategy involved, but nonetheless, when you get punched in the face, it hurts. Anyway, in spite of this, the film's concluding moments are actually very emotional. We've invested so much in Rocky's transformation by this point, we've watched him train, we've seen him drink raw eggs, that it's hard not to get behind the underdog. And it's not even about winning. He just wants to be a respectable opponent. And we want it for him.

I should also acknowledge the similarities between Rocky's story and Sylvester Stallone's own story in getting the film made. Sly wrote the script as well as starring as the Italian Stallion, but that may not have been the case. Had he not refused to sell his script without being assured the lead, we may have seen Robert Redford or James Caan in the title role. He stuck to his guns, though. and found the producers who would buy the story with him as Rocky and the rest is history.

And Stallone is very good as the mumbling yet talkative pugilist. As are the rest of the main cast. Burt Young is explosive as Paulie, who surely breaks a few health department rules by allowing Rocky to use the cow carcasses in the freezer for sparring practice. Talia Shire is touching as the meek love interest. And Burgess Meredith, appearing again in my project after the last round's Of Mice and Men from 1939, is great as Rocky's grouchy trainer. All four garnered Oscar nominations for their performances.


  1. I think the biggest problem of evaluating "Rocky," is trying to ignore the progressively ridiculous sequels. Well, the final film, "Rocky Balboa," as preposterous as it was, did capture some of the flavor of the original. Did I say final? Silly me. I still expect a "Rocky VII, Rocky vs. Rambo." I can already visualize it: Training Sequence: Rocky, using a walker, carries an Ox on his back while Rambo disguises himself as an ancient oak tree ready to pounce. Stallone could also play each trainer and the referee - hey it worked for Eddie Murphy.

    One of the advantages of being of a certain age, is remembering (for now at least) seeing many of the nominated films in the theater during initial runs. So Matt, when you were getting your diapers changed, I was sitting in a packed house on opening night in 1976. When Rocky threw that punch that knocked down Apollo Creed in round one, the audience went ballistic. I have to hand it to Stallone - he wrote a story that transformed into cinema as one of the classic underdog tales of all time. It was completely unexpected and worked like a charm. It certainly was easy to see how, like "Marty" some twenty years earlier, "Rocky" took on the heavyweight contenders and came out a winner.

  2. I haven't actually seen any of the sequels. I'm not sure whether that should make me feel ashamed or fortunate. But there is certainly no doubt that the Rocky franchise has suffered some derision over the years due to its abundance of sequels. Which is a shame, really, since the first one is such a good tale.

    Every now and then, when I'm showing off my Rain Man like ability to name every Best Picture off the top of my head, I get some fascinating reactions from people who didn't previously know that Rocky was one such winner. The assumption is that the movie is somewhat of a joke, so how could it possibly win the top honour. But people forget that, despite the sequels, the original film was very well received.

    Perhaps I'm better off never soiling my image of Rocky by subjecting myself to those sequels.

    And I had my nappies changed, not my diapers... :-)

  3. Yo Adrian! This rags to riches movie had me loving it. What a feel good movie with a somewhat realistic ending – he actually doesn’t win the championship but can stand tall for his effort. Try and keep trying even the little guy can accomplish something. Whether this is really true in life is what makes us who we are –pessimists, optimists or idealists. We can only hope that life treats us fairly and if not then like Rocky and “The Alchemist” we don’t give up.

    Sal D