Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Reel 40: ROCKY

“Yo Adrian!”

This month marks the 40th anniversary of ROCKY.

In the early 1970’s, a young and starving actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone watched a heavyweight boxing match between the great Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, in which Wepner was defeated by a technical knockout in the 15th round. Despite losing the fight, Wepner had lasted much longer than everyone had expected him to, and this inspired Stallone to begin writing the script for ROCKY. The script was written in less than four days, and the project picked up interest from United Artists.

The studio initially thought the film to be a vehicle for established stars such as Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, or James Caan. True to the spirit of ROCKY, Stallone, then an unknown, convinced the studio to not only let him play the lead, but to also film on location in Philadelphia, as opposed to a Los Angeles sound-stage.

Stallone’s script, which told the story of a tough working-class boxer who gets a shot at the heavyweight championship, called for strong characters, so a strong cast was needed. Carl Weathers was cast as the champion, Apollo Creed…who was loosely based on Ali. Creed was a flamboyant loud-talker, which provided a nice contrast to the shy and introverted main character of Rocky Balboa. Talia Shire, fresh off her success in THE GODFATHER, was cast as Adrian, Rocky’s love interest, and veteran actor Burgess Meredith would play the part of Mickey, Rocky’s trainer. Burt Young was cast as Paulie, Adrian’s brother. John G. Avildsen, who directed Jack Lemmon to an Oscar win in 1973, was brought on to direct.

Shooting took place over just 28 days on location in Philadelphia, with pickups in L.A., on a budget of just $1 million; a low number even for those times. Inventor/operator Garrett Brown’s brand new “steadicam” was used to accomplish smooth photography for scenes when Rocky was running through city streets and climbing up the 72 steps of the Art Museum. Stallone and Weathers would endure injuries while filming the boxing scenes. Once shooting wrapped, composer Bill Conti would provide the score.

ROCKY would be a victory. The film would be a box office smash, and considering its small budget of $1 million, would eventually become notable for its worldwide percentage return of over 11,000 percent. Critics loved it, and the film would receive a whopping ten Oscar nominations, winning three; including Best Picture, Best Director (Avildsen), and Best Editing. The film’s main cast of Stallone, Meredith, Shire, and Young would all be nominated for their acting. ROCKY’S main theme song Gonna Fly Now made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2006, ROCKY was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and today, is considered to be one of the greatest and influential sports films of all time. ROCKY would spawn six sequels over the next 39 years, and Stallone would become an international star. Years later, John G. Avildsen would use the ROCKY template to create THE KARATE KID.


As a wee-lad growing up in Pennsylvania (Rocky’s home state), ROCKY was a film which was basically on repeat at home; either on glorious Beta tape or HBO. The film would inspire this Blogger and his brother to recreate the fights with several socks on our hands (not one of our best ideas), and the film would easily become a family favorite. Years later, as this Blogger began his study of film, the influence ROCKY had, and still has on cinema is clear. Any story which tells the tale of an underdog going up against goliath-sized odds is always referred to as a “Rocky Story”, and that is a true compliment. Outside of film, the cultural impact ROCKY has had is abundantly clear. This Blogger relocated to Philly in 2010, and during every visit to the Art Museum, many people, either Philly natives or tourists, can be seen running up the steps…recreating the iconic moment in the film. And when they get to the top, they always raise their arms in victory, just like Rocky. The Rocky Statue (first unveiled in ROCKY III in 1982), always has lines of people waiting to take their picture in front of it, and the Philadelphia Eagles, the city’s pro-football team (or so they claim), plays the ROCKY theme before every game. Stallone found a way to speak to the underdog in everyone on the night he watched that Ali fight, and in the last 40 years has inspired us all to keep getting up…no matter how many times we get hit. It’s all about heart, and that is an idea that lasts forever.

“…and that bell rings and I’m still standing, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

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