There are movies that have the ability to make people laugh, and at other times make a grown man shed a few tears. Some films tantalize an audience’s senses, while others repulse them with horrific images of gore and gratuitous violence. There are in depth documentaries that explore a subject to its finite form, and biographical portraits that allow us to get closer to an individual who, all our lives, has been seemingly out of reach. Musicals can stick in a person’s head to the point where someone is singing the lyrics while driving alone in their car or while showering. Dramas make us feel lucky for the amount of actual non-drama in our own lives, and foreign fare can make one yearn to take a long desired, vacation to Europe, or some other far off destination. There are also films that inspire people, sometimes in droves, and the subject of this week’s blog has been doing just that for decades.
The movie “Rocky” which was shot in only twenty-eight days, and made for a budget of barely one million dollars was released on December 3, 1976 and has gone on to gross an estimated two-hundred and twenty-five million dollars worldwide. Aging, second rate boxer Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone, (First Blood) who also wrote the screenplay, in this blogger’s opinion, gives the finest performance of his career. Balboa is going nowhere in life; he lives a shabby existence in the run down environment of a poor Philadelphia neighborhood. During the day Rocky works as an enforcer for local loan shark Tony Gazzo, played by the wonderfully proficient character actor Joe Spinell, (Maniac) and on certain evenings fights in a smoke filled local club against other second rate boxers for barely a forty dollar payout.
Rocky is a lonely figure, who is without family. His only company, apart from his loud-mouth and hot tempered friend Paulie, in a role completely embodied by Burt Young, (Mickey Blue Eyes) are his two pet turtles Cuff and Link. His only discernable ambition at the start of the film is getting to go out with Paulie’s sister; the irreproachable, shy and mousy pet store clerk Adrian, acted by Talia Shire (The Godfather). As an aside, Shire is the real life sister of Academy Award winning director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather: Part II) and the aunt of both Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) and director Sofia Coppola (Somewhere).
Rocky’s life lacks structured purpose until World Heavyweight Champion, the boisterous, flamboyant, shrewd, but very likable, Apollo Creed, played by the equally charismatic Carl Weathers, (Predator) makes the decision to stage a fight on July 4th, which coincides with America’s bi-centennial; however, this is no ordinary fight. Apollo wants to give an opportunity to a local Philadelphia underdog to step into the ring with him, and as he is paging through a book containing the names of local boxers, he stumbles upon Rocky, whose in-ring moniker “The Italian Stallion” resonates with Apollo. He wants to give Rocky the opportunity even though Creed’s trainers have reservations because Rocky is a southpaw (left-handed), which is a type of boxer Apollo has never fought before. The heavyweight champ dismisses his trainers’ concerns while stating he will drop Rocky in three rounds. From that moment forth the film establishes itself as an urban fairy tale, a movie that is part nuanced drama, driven by exceptional acting, and part touching love story between Adrian and Rocky. Shire’s character of Adrian is a self-reflection of Rocky as she attempts to break out from her delicate shell of isolation. She wants to be the kind of woman who will fight back against her brother, Paulie, who chastises her in order to makeup for his own low self-esteem. Rocky not only gives Adrian his heart, but of equal importance, he shows her that she has the ability within herself to stand on her own two feet, so that she can prove her true value.
The sharply directed John G. Avildsen (The Karate Kid) film earned ten Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars for picture, film editing, and a best director statuette for Avildsen. The idea behind the movie was partially inspired by the story of real life boxer, The Bayonne Brawler, Chuck Wepner. In 1975, Wepner received a $100,000 payday to challenge Muhammad Ali to a world heavyweight title fight. Fans and sports-writers alike considered the fight a no-contest, but Wepner almost went the distance with Ali for 15 rounds before being knocked out with virtually seconds left in the bout.
One of the most important cast members of the film, who has not been previously mentioned, is Burgess Meredith, who received his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role with “Rocky.” His prior nomination was also for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the 1975 film “The Day of the Locust.” The character he played was that of the boxing gym owner the cantankerous, gravel voiced Mickey Goldmill, whose on screen persona has been often imitated in a variety of mediums for the past three decades. In this blogger’s opinion, the most interesting aspect of Meredith’s performance is that his best scenes are shot before he becomes Rocky’s manager. At the beginning of the film Mickey has nothing but contempt for Rocky. He feels that while Rocky has heart he fights like an ape, and more importantly, could have been a good fighter if he didn’t waste his life working for a criminal. Things change, however, once Rocky receives the chance of a lifetime from Apollo.
Mickey goes to Rocky’s apartment and, after highlighting the ups and downs of his own career in the ring, gets around to offering his services as Rocky’s manager and trainer. He wants to help Rocky make the most of his opportunity, a chance Goldmill never got as a fighter because he never had a manager looking out for him as he states several times during the exchange of dialogue in the scene. At first Rocky is irate at Goldmill’s earlier rejections and the way, he feels, he has been unfairly treated by Mickey. The aging trainer walks away dejected, but after blowing off some steam, Rocky runs after Mickey who is walking down the street. Rocky agrees to the old trainer’s request, but the brilliance of the scene, in this blogger’s opinion, is that it is devoid of dialogue; instead body language is used to advance the narrative. That particular scene is the moment in the film that is the catalyst in creating a relationship of deep caring, concern, love and, most importantly, mutual respect between the two men; it is a relationship that will carry over into two sequels and live in Rocky’s heart forever.
In addition, the film also launched the prolific career of composer Bill Conti (Private Benjamin). Like Stallone, Conti was not exactly a household name in 1976. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, his composition became one of the most enduring and popular parts of the original “Rocky,” as well as the subsequent five sequels. The iconic title theme, which is an orchestral /vocal hybrid, “Gonna Fly Now” was composed by Conti to accompany the film’s training montage. Conti demonstrates with his score that he had an in depth understanding of the message Stallone was attempting to convey with the film and knew exactly when to showcase the emotional impact of a scene and when to withdraw to simplistic piano music for subtlety. The soundtrack for “Rocky” went platinum and Conti was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Grammy for his work on the film. Although he did not win for “Rocky”, he did go onto receive Oscar gold for the 1983 Phillip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) directed movie “The Right Stuff”.
I don’t think it is a major spoiler for me to state that Rocky does not win the title fight against Apollo, but that wasn’t his goal to begin with. To Rocky, winning was secondary; he was more concerned with both going the distance and winning Adrian’s heart. In this blogger’s opinion, Rocky speaks to all of us who have a dream of achieving something in life and making the time we have count; not only count, but having at least one moment in our lives when we can be our quintessential best and succeed regardless of the obstacles. In the pond of life there are an awful lot of little fish swimming around and very few big fish, but at some time, somewhere in our heart of hearts, or maybe even right on our sleeve, don’t we all want to be the big fish just once? Dreams for many of us are like the hands of a child, who try as they might can’t capture the elusive butterfly that dances in front of their eyes. For many of us adults out there the butterfly is still out of reach, but Rocky teaches us to never give up on our dreams regardless of age and circumstance because that once in a lifetime shot might come to us as unexpectedly as it did to him.