Film Score: Bill Conte Cinematography: James Crabe
Starring: Sylvester Stalone, Talia Shire, Burt Young and Carl Weathers
Rocky may seem today, it was a vital piece of filmmaking back in 1976, and was recognized as such by the Motion Picture Academy by winning the award for best picture that year. But it’s no secret why the film was so popular, and that’s because it’s ultimately not a boxing film. It’s a love story. Director John G. Avildsen was a solid choice to direct the film, and in some ways his ability to stay out of the way artistically and let the story tell itself is one of the best parts of the film, and he was accordingly recognized with an Oscar of his own. The actors all do a tremendous job, especially Carl Weathers as the Ali-like champ that Stallone faces in the ring. Composer Bill Conte’s score is also one of the major contributors to the success of the film, especially his fanfare that opens the song, “Gonna Fly Now.” Stallone wrote the screenplay on spec, and had to beg the producers to allow him to star in the film. They relented, and as a result had a difficult time finding actors to fill out the rest of the cast. Though none of them were unknowns, they were mostly new faces to the screen--with the exception of Shire--and added even more realism to the production.
The film begins briefly with Conte’s fanfare, then opens on an exhausted Sylvester Stallone in a local Philadelphia boxing ring getting beaten by his opponent. But a dirty blow incites him into pummeling the man and winning a whopping forty-five dollars. The credits roll as he walks home, with white guys singing on the corner over a fire barrel. Stallone lives in a dump of an apartment, and has an affinity for animals. The next morning he stops to see a frumpy looking Talia Shire who works the counter at a pet shop and is abused by her boss, then he’s off to the docks working for mobster Joe Spinell collecting on debts and gets twenty bucks for his trouble and chewed out because he didn’t break the guy’s thumb like he was told. Then at the gym his trainer, Burgess Meredith, moves his gear out of his locker because he thinks Stallone is a loser. Despite his victory the night before, it hasn’t been a good day. Stallone is friends with Shire’s brother, Burt Young, and wants to know why she doesn’t like him. The scene then shift to boxing champ Carl Weathers. Even though his prizefight has been canceled he still wants to defend his belt, but no one wants to fight him. So he hits on the idea of fighting a local boy, and picks Stallone out of a book simply because of his nickname, “The Italian Stallion.” His trainer, Tony Burton, is worried because Stallone is left handed, but Weathers assures him he’ll knock him out in three rounds.
Just at the moment when Stallone is developing a relationship with Shire, he gets word through Weathers’ promoter that the champ wants to fight him. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Stallone. Young wants to be a gopher, and Meredith comes sniffing around to be his manager. Stallone is angry at first because of the way he was treated by the old man, but then he relents and hires him. Training begins, and ends, with the centerpiece of the film, the iconic training run that concludes on the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, accompanied by Bill Conte’s rousing theme song. This is followed by the lengthy climax of the actual fight. Even in terms of mid-seventies filmmaking there’s a sense that the film is attempting to be more than it seems on paper. There’s also a grittiness that Avildsen captures that would be almost impossible to replicate today without the forced artificiality of something like Gangs of New York, or the CGI cartoonishness of so many modern films. Even though the street that Stallone lives on is on a sound stage, there is a reality to the real exteriors that is impressive. The other aspect of Stallone’s screenplay that doesn’t usually come in for praise is the humor he injects into his title character. It makes for an incredibly endearing film in so many ways, not the least of which is the relationship between Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire.
While many reviewers want to call the series a love story between the fighter and his trainer, that is not the emphasis of the first film. The original Rocky is a love story between a man and a woman, plain and simple. At the beginning of their relationship is a very clever section of the film where Stallone takes Shire out to an ice skating rink. It’s closed but he gives the guy ten bucks to let her skate for ten minutes. As the two of them are going around the rink he tells her all about his life as a kid and how he started boxing, and all the while the guy is shouting out how many minutes they have left as though the scene were in real time. The backstory gets filled out, their relationship starts, and some chemistry develops between the two, though that’s nothing compared to the love scene that follows in Stallone’s apartment. It’s one of the most intimate moments in film history. It’s little more than a kiss, but it almost makes the viewer embarrassed to be watching them. And there’s more. When Shire has a fight with a drunken Young, Shire decides she needs to move out and asks Stallone if he wants a roommate, to which he replies, “Absolutely.” And, of course, the final scene, when Stallone is swollen and bloodied is where they finally confess their love for each other. Like the rest of the film it’s real, and that’s what makes it great. Rocky has a lot of impressive layers, and is more than deserving of the Oscar it earned.