Now, I don’t want to offend anyone here, but I still find it absolutely incredible that Rocky won the 1976 Oscar for Best Picture when it had both Taxi Driver and All The Presidents Men to content with. I mean, come on – if that’s not proof that the value of a film is in its longevity, then I don’t know what is. Rocky may have been loved at the time, but let’s be honest for a second, in comparison to Taxi Driver, it really doesn’t fare that well.
At the same time though, the first Rocky film has managed to attract a new audience with each successive generation. I think that’s why looking back at Rocky all these years later, some 45 to be exact, is so interesting; not only does it offer us an insight into the tastes of the cinema-going public of 1976, but it also shows us what a film needs to remain universal.
One of the essential reasons Rocky has continued to resonate with people so many years after its release is that it follows a simple and effective narrative: a person struggles against all the odds to achieve greatness. Even the story of Rocky Balboa’s creation seems to have followed this archetypal narrative arc. The script was written by the hand of out-of-work B-movie actor, Sylvester Stallone. The story goes that Stallone sat down to write the Rocky after watching Muhammad Ali fight Wepner fight in 1975. Believing himself to be the only man with the cahoonas to take on the part, Stallone managed to convince the studios — who had their heart’s set on the likes of Ryan O’Neal, James Caan and Warren Beatty — that he was the perfect man for the role of southpaw boxer training for a fight-to-end-all-fights.
The studio offered a measly $150,000 for the script, which Stallone, who had sold his dog the previous week to pay his rent, decided to turn down. His self-belief won out in the end though when Universal Artists agreed to fund the project, allowing Stallone to play the role of Rocky and to choreograph the fight scenes himself. With director John G. Avildsen and a cast of top character actors on board, principal photography for Rocky began in January 1976.
When it was released, crowds went absolutely wild for Rocky. It elicited a really visceral reaction from the public, with audience members pumping their fists in the air and shouting things at the screen as though Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrien), and Burgess Meredith (Mickey) were in the very next room. The intensity of Stallone’s performance garnered comparisons to a young Marlon Brando, with many touting him as the year’s breakout star, while Bill Conti’s stirring score is perhaps one of the most memorable of the whole 1970s. So why, then, does Rocky look so shoddy in retrospect?
While Stallone’s narrative hits all the right beats at all the right moments, I can’t help thinking that he loaned Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey and used it, less as a roadmap (as George Lucas did with Star Wars) than as a set of instructions to be followed to the letter. Sure, it’s a neat little story, but Rocky does give one the feeling of being led by the hand, as though Stallone believed the film-going public to be a little too dim to make it on their own. I’m not saying that all films have to be complex, Fellinian explorations of contemporary politics, I just think it’s a little condescending to shove in a slow-motion shot to emphasise that something is momentous; is that so wrong? I suppose the narrative neatness of Rocky is what makes it all the more frustrating that it has no idea what kind of film it wants to be. Neither Stallone nor Avildsen seem quite sure whether their film should be a romantic romp or a neo-realist depiction of urban decay, so they choose to jam in much of both as possible and hope for the best. All I can say is that I’m surprised it worked so well.