Here’s the thing: we all know some version of the Rocky story: a down on his luck boxer gets the chance of a lifetime and fights the good fight. It’s remembered by its iconic image at the top of the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a debut performance by Sylvester Stallone.
And yet, I’ve paced back and forth for several days, trying to figure out how the heck I felt about the movie. I’ve racked my brain at all hours of the day trying to make heads or tails of this thing.
Let me start with this: I’m a sports fan. I am. But when it comes to sports movies, I’m woefully unprepared to debate them. I’ve never seen Rocky, a perceived American classic. But, I was excited to watch it as part of this assignment. In reflection, though, I’m not sure what I expected.
Everything I knew about Rocky heading into my first viewing was that of a romanticized, glamorous and inspiring story of rising through the ashes and becoming who you always wanted to be.
But all those perceptions fail to present the rest of Rocky. They don’t get into the nitty gritty, tough details of the movie. In some ways, I was disappointed that the movie was more than terrific training montages, shredded abs and violence upon violence. While it does have those things, I was not expecting a movie full of love, self-doubt, troubled friendships or stark poverty. This movie hits me right in feels when it needs to. It forced me to love a guy that’s, for the first half of the movie, despicable and unlikable.
Yes, Rocky is an American classic, but only because it embodies the many loves of the most traditional American values. Rocky must pull himself up by his bootstraps, get over himself and exceed. It shows that hard work and perseverance equal success, even when what it takes to achieve it is offered to you on a silver platter.
The movie endorses a traditional view of machismo, as well. Rocky is the tough meat head surrounded by other tough meatheads. He’s able to take a seemingly unlimited number of punches, both literal and metaphorical and still be chipper. He keeps his feelings and emotions bottled up and lets them boil over into violent outbreaks and tirades. He’s one that we can identify with. He’s flawed and that’s why we love him.
Now, for the review:
Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky and it garnered him a nomination for Best Screenplay. The script took him less than four days to write. He was apparently inspired by a Mohammed Ali and Chuck Wepner fight.
The script for Rocky is very rough and it features Rocky doing most of the talking. However, it excels with its subtly. Rocky’s improving relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire) and at times corroding relationship with his friend Paulie (Burt Young) are never expressly stated but rather left to us, the audience, to figure out.
The script is also very “south Philadelphia.” Most of the characters in it are uneducated and their dialogue reflects that. Yet it has an insane amount of authenticity. I would count the number of “yo’s” in this movie but I can’t count that high.
Much like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Rocky doesn’t seem to shut the heck up throughout the movie. However, this is much more tolerable because it is offset by how much silence in the movie too. This is particularly evident in a scene just before the fight. The setting jumps back and forth to both Rocky and Apollo Creed and they are doing their last-minute preparation before the event. This is interspersed with close-ups of both fighters. The story is told by the sounds and the sights of the preparations. That is excellent writing. 1.
John G. Avildsen directs Rocky and it, in a way, parallels the plight of its main character. He won Best Director for this film, too. The movie had a low budget and the production crew sometimes flew by the seat of its collective pants. Yet, it managed to be the highest grossing film in 1976 and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won three of them.
What’s interesting about this film is that it’s like I’m watching two different movies. The movie shifts at the hour mark and it goes from being slow to picking up increasing speed. The most iconic parts of the movie are all in the last hour of the film. This was unconventional to me as Rocky’s story doesn’t really go anywhere productive for the first hour.
I loved this and hated this. My inner rebel thoroughly enjoyed throwing a middle finger to the Hollywood establishment idea that the story had to progress right out the gate. At the same time, I wasn’t overly interested in the more redundant parts of the movie. All Rocky seems to do is walk around and shout at people in his brilliant south Philly accent. Don’t worry, people shout at him, too.
But all of that sets up the rest of the story. Rocky needs a firm foundation for the rest of it. And that’s why it was left in. This is a gutsy creative decision that I must applaud Avildsen for. 1.
Rocky takes place in really one macro setting, Philadelphia in late 1975. Most of the movie was shot in the city which makes the settings true to form and it lends a bit of authenticity to the setting.
The clothing and the feel of the movie is very true to form as well. But, let’s face it, Rocky takes place in present day for when it came out, so it’s not hard to get the present day feel. However, as this video explains, there’s a lot of research and planning that goes into making costumes that reflect present day. The set design isn’t anything special, but it works. Rocky is so 1970s that it hurts and that’s a good thing. 1.
James Crabe was the cinematographer for Rocky and he took a very simple approach to shooting the movie. But, just like set design, it’s effective. This is the movie, after all, that features a dude at the top of some steps.
There are some creative shots in the movie and some that buck conventional wisdom. One of my favorites was the methods was using a mirror to shoot a conversation. Very early in the movie, when Rocky is trying to talk to Adrian in the pet store, the camera moves to the right and focuses on a mirror behind the counter. In that mirror, you see Rocky’s face as he’s talking to Adrian. Very creative.
Another element of cinematography that I haven’t touched on in this project is lighting. Rocky’s lighting is almost a modern-day noir, in the fact that it plays very heavily in the lights and the shadows. This technique uses just one “key” or main light to illuminate one side of the character’s faces and letting everything else fall in shadow.
One of my favorite uses of this was when Rocky first starts working out. This is the famous scene in which he drinks a glass of raw eggs. The supposed health benefits of doing so aside, I loved this scene. Rocky wakes up groggily and heads over to the fridge. He opens the fridge and the light from the fridge lights the whole scene. The key light goes on when the fridge is opened and goes off when it’s closed. 1.
Bill Conti’s soundtrack is just as iconic as the rest of the movie. His song “Gonna Fly Now” was nominated for Best Music (Original Song). The tune that number is centered around is present in the rare uses of music in the film albeit mostly done with a piano. In fact, up until the famous training scene, the tune is only played on the piano. It almost pops you square in the face when it plays the first time because it’s so different.
Rocky was also nominated for Best Sound (or Best Sound Mixing as it’s called today). This movie is full of little nuances of sound that help to build the atmosphere. Early in the movie, Rocky enters a bar. In the background, the television on the wall has a news story talking about Apollo Creed. I picked up on it right away, but Rocky doesn’t. In fact, several seconds pass before he notices that Creed’s on TV. This sound is an excellent illustration that, yes, the world does go on outside of our character’s lives. 1.
While I’m not a huge fan of Sylvester Stallone’s other works, Rocky seems to be the movie that is perfect for him. His slightly slurred speech and ever present sneer scream south Philly to me.
It’s a role that he seems to embellish. Stallone’s performance was the reason I liked Rocky the person; he’s always insulted when the opportunity presents itself. He conveys loneliness, love, determination, anger and happiness to perfection in this. Frankly, Rocky may not even be anywhere near the same movie without him.
Rocky is also a mirror of Stallone himself. A relative unknown at the time, Stallone’s performance in a movie that he wrote launched his career. Without his performance in Rocky, there is no Rambo or other movies in the Rocky series. The decision to put Stallone as the headliner was the first one that helped set the course for this movie to go all 15 rounds. For his efforts, Stallone grabbed a nomination for Best Actor.
There are other good performances as well, most notably by Talia Shire, who plays Adrian. Once an extremely shy pet shop clerk, Adrian becomes more confident in herself as Rocky does. She’s outspoken and feisty when she needs to be, too. She excels in the subtly of her character’s physical movements as well as her emotions. She earned her only Best Actress nomination playing Adrian.
Obviously, Rocky is filled with many great performances, but Stallone naturally steals the show. 1.
If there’s one area where Rocky is weak, it’s here. I felt the story was entirely predictable throughout. I don’t, however, feel like this is due to having heard about the movie all throughout my life.
No, this is due to a well-worn and familiar story about a character (boxer or otherwise) that must overcome their own struggles to become something great. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this story, though. It’s inspiring and we all need that from time to time.
In last week’s review of Gandhi, I gave that movie high marks for having almost the same broad story element. So how can I give one movie credit for this while taking it from another? Well, it has to do with how that story is told.
I mentioned above that the first half of the movie is dedicated solely to building Rocky’s character and figuring out what makes him tick. While this makes the character of Rocky more believable and relatable, and it’s a break from convention, I was utterly disinterested in the first half of the film.
After Rocky is offered the chance to fight Creed (which he initially turns down), the movie picks up from there. It certainly feels like two different movies, one that is an hour long and boring, and the other that is an hour long and inspiring. I can’t let this slide, though. If it weren’t for this blog, I probably would tune out the movie during the first hour and that’s not good for any story, let alone a Best Picture winner. 0.
I have no bonus points to give. Rocky does just fine in many areas, but does not go over the top in any of them.
Final Score: 6/10
Rocky won the 49th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 28, 1977 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The 49th Academy Awards were hosted by Richard Pryor, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty. Rocky beat out All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network and Taxi Driver for Best Picture. Jack Nicholson presented the award for the second time. Overall, Rocky was nominated 10 times, tied for the most with Network. The movie won three awards, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing.
As mentioned above, John G. Avildsen won Best Director for Rocky. It was his only nomination and win in this category. Peter Finch is one of only two actors (the other being Heath Ledger) to win an acting Oscar posthumously. He won Best Actor for his role in Network. Faye Dunaway won Best Actress and Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for their roles in Network, making it the first time since A Streetcar Named Desire to win three acting Oscars. Best Supporting Actor went to Jason Robards in All the President’s Men.
On the next post, we go way back to 1929 and look at Harry Beaumont’s The Broadway Melody, the second Best Picture winner. Following that, it’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), The Last Emperor (1987), The Hurt Locker (2009) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).