Let’s Talk About… ‘Rocky’ (1976)

Film #34 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Every actor has that one character that they are forever attached to. Arnold Schwarzenegger will forever be The Terminator, Bruce Willis will never stop being John McClane, and Robert Downey Jr. has become one with Tony Stark/Iron Man. However, if they are lucky, actors may strike gold twice with a character (looking at you Harrison Ford).  The same can be said for Sylvester Stallone. Rocky Balboa and John Rambo are two instantly recognizable characters that first debuted in 1976 and 1982. But there would be no John Rambo if Rocky Balboa had not managed to secure himself a cinematic victory six years earlier.

Pre-Rocky Thoughts

I was familiar with a handful of knowledge about the Rocky film series before I actually bothered to watch the first film. I knew “Eye of the Tiger” was the song of Rocky III (I actually thought it was from IV until I double checked), and that there was an iconic training montage that inspired countless parodies to come (more on that later). I knew that Rocky shouted “Yo Adrian,” but didn’t know why. I knew about as little as possible to uphold a casual conversation about Rocky. With this minimal knowledge I expected Rocky to be a straightforward underdog boxing story, but that isn’t what I watched. The film played against my expectations in a way that delighted and engaged me. The story wasn’t so much focused on boxing as it was on Rocky himself. More on that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at how Rocky made it to the big screen.

Background

After watching the championship match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky in three and a half days. Although, Stallone was motivated by the match he has denied that Wepner was any inspiration for the script. Despite this statement, there are parallels from the real life match to Rocky’s match, specifically the fact that nobody expected Chuck Wepner to last as long as he did in the fight (especially making it the the 15th round before a TKO’d). United Artists liked Stallone’s script and saw it as a potential vehicle for Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, or James Caan. It is tough to imagine that Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds could have pulled off the same sort of energy that Stallone brought to the role.

According to commentary on the DVD release by director John G. Avildsen, the scenes where Rocky Balboa points out that the poster of his likeness got the color of his shorts backwards, as well as Rocky’s robe being two big were actual goofs by the production department. Due to this issues being noticed on the day of filming, Stallone wrote into the script dialogue to make it not look like goofs. Not only is this quick thinking on Stallone’s part, but it adds more depth to the character of Rocky Balboa.

Story & Characters

I expected Rocky to tell the story of an underdog boxer getting his shot at a world championship match against the reigning champion Apollo Creed. While that is a storyline that runs throughout the film, the heart of the story is the relationship between Rocky and Adrian. These two both have setbacks that are seen as disadvantages in our society. Rocky isn’t exactly the brightest fellow, but he has a kind heart. Meanwhile, Adrian is too shy and lacks self-confidence. However, when you put these two together they bring out the best in each other. Adrian begins to open up and find her inner and outer beauty, and Rocky starts to believe in the impossible. Their love is the crux of the story with boxing taking a secondary position. I rooted more for Adrian telling her brother off than I did when Rocky fought Apollo.

I mentioned this in my AFI for E.T., but, in my mind, a lot of the films of the 1970s and 80s are considered classics because they focused more on the characters than the plot. As long as the audience gets invested with the characters, the story can be as simple and straightforward as need be. A common complaint for any film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the films follow a three-act cookie cutter approach. But audiences come for the characters that they have fallen in love with. I don’t care who Captain America or Iron Man is fighting, I just want to see these characters continue to grow and evolve. The audience is invested in the character, not the story.

Which is why when you break it down Rocky is a simple underdog tale. It’s not complicated. It’s straightforward and to the point. Rocky has a shot at fighting the world champion. Rocky has a shot at a romance. Rocky takes the shots. Rocky comes out on the other side a changed man. If I had a motto for Hollywood it would be to keep it simple. Invest not only in the story, but in the characters that will inhabit that story.

So, personally, I liked Rocky. It had almost a Taxi Driver atmosphere to it. The streets were worn and beaten, the colors are darker and muted. It paints a realistic picture of the environment Rocky grows up in. It feeds itself into the underdog genre. When Rocky climbs those steps and makes it to the top and cheers, color is in the sky. There’s a parallel somewhere in there about his training to the lifestyle he is working so hard to rise above. Plus, I’m sort of biased in that I enjoy a good on-location shoot. Old films didn’t use much CGI, if any, and looking back it adds a certain quality that works in their favor.

The Training Montage and “Gonna Fly Now”

I’d be a fool if I didn’t talk more in depth about this montage. In some ways it is almost more iconic than the film itself. Ask anyone to name something they know about Rocky and they’ll either say “Eye of the Tiger” or mention the training montage.

The training montage works for one reason: Bill Conti‘s “Gonna Fly Now“, the theme song for Rocky. It is hard to describe why this song works so damn well, but William Dhalgren explains it best:

No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the first few brass notes of “Gonna Fly Now” stop me dead in my tracks. Make me want to climb something, sprint up a flight of stairs. Punch the air! The song never fails to produce inside of me a need to expend energy. It’s the most recognizable piece of music on the record and arguably one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever written.

I’m listening to the song as I’m writing this and it does make you want to run up a flight of stairs and punch the air. I mentioned that a simple, straightforward story, and characters the audience can invest in are two important parts of a film’s success. However, having a killer song doesn’t hurt either.

This montage has been parodied in countless television shows, from The Simpsons to Family Guy to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. However, as far as my childhood memory archives go, I believe The Proud Family introduced me to the Rocky training montage life.

Final Thoughts

Rocky is solid. It gave us the Italian Stallion, “Gonna Fly Now,” and a greater love for boxing films. It makes me think that I will be moving Raging Bull up a couple pegs on my Must-Watch list.

However, if I had to just list one problem, one little nitpick, it would be the fact that I couldn’t tell what was a landed punch of a successful dodge. The staging could have been the problem but as I’m thinking “Damn, Rocky had a close call there” I’m watching Rocky bleeding. That punch didn’t land! Now I am aware that the idea is to try and make the fighting look as realistic as possible, but couldn’t Carl Weathers and Stallone took a couple hits just for the sake of the film? Okay, nitpicking how everything looked like a successful dodge over.

If you haven’t seen Rocky, go watch it. Then read this AFI review. Then read William Dhalgren’s editorial, “Movies, Music, and Memory: Bill Conti’s ‘Rocky’ Soundtrack.”

Fun Facts/Trivia

  • The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. It won three for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. It was the first sports film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
  • In 2006, the United States National Film Registry selected the film for preservation.
  • Ranked #57 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), up 21 spots from the 1998 edition.
  • Rocky grossed $225 million on a budget of $1.1 million; a definite sleeper hit.
  • Roger Ebert called Sylvester Stallone a “young Marlon Brando” in his review of the film.
  • Rocky’s dog Butkus was actually Stallone’s dog.
  • Rocky’s monologue to Mickey (Burgess Meredith) after turning down Mickey’s offer to manage him was improvised on-set by Sylvester Stallone.
  • Talia Shire, who plays Adrian, is the aunt of Nicolas Cage. Yup, she’s part of that Coppola bloodline.