ROCKY (1976)

rockyI love living in Philadelphia. There’s so much to love here. Cultural districts like the Avenue of the Arts are the pride of the city, connected to neighborhoods by a network of bike lanes. And then there is that Center City skyline. Open the City Paper any given week and you’ll see how much is going on. It’s no wonder movies and TV are regularly filmed in Philly. From The Sixth Sense to Cold Case to Silver Linings Playbook, Hollywood can’t get enough of this town.  The Kimmel Center. The Gayborhood. The Barnes. What makes me appreciate it all the more is that the city I come from had none of this. Now, I certainly have a deep and abiding love for the town I was born in, but it was a place known more for post-War blight and depopulation than anything else. It was a place you move out of, not move to. And just where was this place I grew up in? That would be Philadelphia, of course!

As a native Philadelphian, I’ve tried to explain to my transplant friends is how different the city feels from when I was a lad, when it was the ne’er do well middle child of the I-95 corridor. Even in an outlying middle class neighborhood like where my family lived, there was always a certain ambivalence to our civic outlook. Sure, we loved this place (especially when the Phillies won), but then we looked around and wondered if our best days were behind us. To communicate this to the folks who weren’t around at the time, I always recommend they watch the quintessential Philadelphia Movie: Rocky. In case you’ve never had basic cable, or you’re confusing it with the sequels, the story goes like this. Rocky Balboa, AKA The Italian Stallion, is a nobody boxer who supplements his meager income working as a goon for the neighborhood loan shark; a job where he gets in trouble because he’s too nice to break thumbs. About the only bright spot in his dismal life is a nascent romance with his friend’s excruciatingly shy sister Adrian. When the flamboyant world champion Apollo Creed, decides to give an unknown fighter a shot at the title, essentially as a publicity stunt, guess who he picks. Yes, Rocky, primarily because he likes his name. The odds are so lopsided that no one outside of Balboa’s camp even considers it a real fight. To Rocky this is the one-time chance to earn the respect of everyone, including himself. With Adrian’s support he trains for his big shot.

We were thrilled when we drew this film – me, because I had never seen it, and Mouse, well – see above. I was not expecting a beautiful, shudder-worthy love story though. Fraught, complex, uncomfortable at times – to see two extremely shy, bumbling people begin to get close to one another was absolutely the best part of this movie for me. I also like seeing a film depict a character like Rocky as complex. Sure, he is simple in a lot of ways – but there are moments, these ACHING moments, when you can tell there is a lot going on inside. From

his interactions with his turtles and fish (bought mostly because Adrian works at a pet shop and he wants an excuse to see her) to the moment when he describes to Adrian that he didn’t like a bad media experience, you see a man with depth. I also felt for Adrian when the guy brings her over to his apartment – a shirtless Rocky is a lot to contend with, maybe more than Apollo himself.

In anticipation of watching this, one of my all time favorite movies, I pulled up the original trailers on Youtube. One of them compared Sylvester Stallone to great actors like Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. Remember, this was Stallone’s breakout role. Before this he had mainly played B-movie heavies (and when he was really hard up, a nudie movie). But he didn’t just play the title character to punchy perfection, he wrote the script. Tell someone today that Stallone was once the ‘next Brando’, surely they’d think you were joking. All these years later, after Judge Dredd and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, it’s easy to forget what a talented guy Stallone was. Take a closer look at Rocky, watch Stallone portray the expressions of a man who doesn’t know how to express his feelings. It doesn’t seem so funny a comparison. Just try to ignore how many times this near-perfect movie’s legacy was trod upon by increasingly inane sequels.

A little off topic, but it’s worth noting another movie that was tarnished by its sequels. Stallone starred in and co-wrote a movie called First Blood about a Vietnam vet named John Rambo. While the sequels were something more like professional wrestling with machine guns, First Blood was a relatively sensitive and thought provoking movie about America’s neglect for the veterans who’ve fought it’s wars. It’s worth checking out. It makes me almost angry. He was obviously a talented, intelligent guy. At what point did he decide to leverage his hunky physique into a career in action movies and cheap sequels? He could have done so much more.

Back to Rocky. Part of the magic here for me is how the blue collar social-realist setting meshes so well with the dual feel-good themes. Rocky trying to win Adrian’s heart by telling her bad jokes under the Frankford El. Rocky jogging the streets of Philly, getting in the best shape of his life to prove that you can lose without being a loser. It draws me right in every time.

This movie made me think about all the times I have thrown myself into a pursuit, physical or artistic, as a way of coping with frustrating, depressing hands life has dealt me. I recognized some of myself in Rocky’s singular focus – the beauty and relief of using your body and energy not only to reach a goal but also to transcend a state of being. It was incredible to literally see Rocky train himself out of loneliness, frustration and desolation. I also appreciated that we as an audience were given the chance to see him doubt himself – when he tries to shepherd a young girl away from a gang of thugs, he wonders out loud who he is to give advice. We’ve all heard those voices in our own heads, and it gives Rocky a real relatability that makes his story a story for everyone. Oh, and did I mention how much I loved the shots under the El near Kensington? I live near there! Yea!

One other thing: the pace of this movie is so wonderful and digestible. It made me wish we could turn back the clock. Not tons of loud music, not fast cut scenes. A smooth, even pace so that you as a viewer can connect with all the characters and really feel a part of the unfolding drama.

Oh no, we’re going to bring out the grumpy old man in me, here. Yeah, this is an extinct style of film making, in the mainstream at least. Slow pacing. The beauty of real film, rather than artificial digitally enhanced colors. I think M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier movies are the closest we’ve seen to this style in recent times, and I think that accounts for a lot of their appeal. Like most great movies, Rocky really gets the little things. The subtle details are just masterfully played. Watch the scene of Rocky coming home to his empty apartment after his first fight, talking to his pets, rehearsing his joke for Adrian and experiencing a moment of introspection when he notices a portrait of himself as a child. It’s as understated as it is compelling.

And then there is the music. I can’t think of a single other movie that opens with a brass fanfare, and if there is one I doubt it was filmed in Kensington. Laugh if you want at the many parodies of the famous training montage. But when I hear “Gonna Fly Now” and watch Rocky run through the Italian Market and up the Art Museum steps, I believe in the existence of the human soul.

I wonder if foreign films adhere to this older style more than American films. It seems possible. Also, glad you brought up the scene with Rocky rehearsing his jokes and talking to his pets. I like that a man who lives by brute strength is portrayed as vulnerable. I think it is incredible powerful and perhaps way before it is time. The date he goes on with Adrian is also completely adorable. He asks her brother what she likes to do, and finds out it is ice skating. He tries to take her to a rink but it is Thanksgiving and the Zamboni driver informs him that the rink is closed. He bargains with the guy, and gets ten minutes on the ice. However, Rocky himself doesn’t skate – so he walks with Adrian awkwardly on the ice. They bumble, both literally and figuratively. When he invites her into his apartment, you feel for both of them. Palpable nervousness. As I said before, I knew she was gone the second his shirt came off. I was not excited with the way in which he cornered her before their first kiss, but I rationalized that it was probably just an extension of his bumbling and that the audience was not meant to take it as threatening body language.

In 1976, the Best Picture category was stacked with some great movies. In fact this is where I surprise everyone and say this: I don’t think it should have won. In retrospect, the greatest artistic achievement of the year was Taxi Driver, which may be my pick for the greatest movie ever made.  Rocky was a low-budget film written by and starring a relatively unknown Philly boy- an underdog story that paralleled the character’s own. The Academy could have done worse than to give it the Oscar and this is one time where I’ll have to respectfully dissent from their decision. Nonetheless, Rocky is deservedly a classic that continues to inspire.

Eat lightning. Crap thunder.

Next film: RAIN MAN (1988)


One Response to “ROCKY (1976)”

  1. I love this movie also! I was really excited when I saw that you guys drew this one as your latest movie to watch because i know how much you love it, Mouse. I didn’t stay long but amid my packing to live in Philly back in July/August I watched Rocky on Youtube almost a dozen times. It was sort of like a visual mantra to keep me positive, and it worked! It’s pretty damn inspiring. When story telling is at it’s best it’s a very powerful thing and I think they nailed it here. I wanted to invite y’all down to Kati’s to watch it on the big screen! Maybe sometime. It’s really great on the projector. I like your blog, dudes!

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