Growing up in the City of Brotherly Love, Rocky is kind of an inescapable cultural force. Every souvenir shop in the city is guaranteed to have a section of tchotchkes baring the Italian Stallion’s image alongside the Liberty Bell and Ben Franklin. Go to the the Philadelphia Museum of Art literally any day of the year, and you’re bound to find busloads of tourists making that iconic run up the steps. Next to, y’know, being the birthplace of the country (and maybe that Santa snowball incident), it’s a safe bet that Rocky is what comes to mind when most people think about Philadelphia. Growing up with that kind of cultural ubiquity, it was tough for me to really appreciate the movie itself for its iconic status, and as result I didn’t see it until far past what I believe might actually be legal in Philly. Yet watching it as an adult reveals why Rocky is a movie worthy of its enduring legacy, both within my hometown and within film in general.
Rocky defies classification. It’s a movie that cozily fits within the company of auteur-driven New Hollywood pictures and feel-good blockbusters, but never truly feels like a part of either. Written by a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, made on a modest budget, and reflecting a personal vision, it has the genetic makeup of New Hollywood. Like a lot of the early films of Scorsese and his cohorts, Rocky depicts urban life earnestly, if poetically. Yet it’s aims are different from any New Hollywood work. There’s optimism and an aspirational quality that feels out of sync with similarly personal movies of the era. This might be because in spite of its social realism, Rocky feels like myth from the start. Rocky’s desire to “go the distance”, to merely prove to Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and the American public that he deserves to be in that ring lends it a quality not unlike American folklore in the vein of the legend of John Henry. It’s like a Thin Lizzy song as a movie*. It’s got an outlook and positivity that we might put closer to the blockbusters that were just taking shape at the time and which would emerge in earnest the next year with Star Wars. And while the franchise would move into blockbuster territory over the course of the next three movies, Rocky keeps itself tethered to the ground and to its North Philadelphia streets and just shy of the realm of popcorn flicks.
For a movie that’s hailed as one of the best sports movies of all time, it’s really most interesting outside of the ring. Not to take away from the bout in the film’s final act, but the best moments in the movie are also the quietest. While listening to the Rocky episode of the film podcast The Canon, the hosts mention that this is a movie that could just be about Rocky romancing Adrian (Talia Shire) and Rocky would come out of the film just as happy, and I have to agree. Between the training and Rocky preparing to go the distance are living, breathing characters. It’s evident in the angry desperation of Burt Young’s simultaneously cruel and sympathetic Paulie and in the ways Burgess Meredith’s eyes betray the gruff exterior Mickey shows Rocky with genuine affection. The movie tells the audience a lot about who this guy is in his first fight in a dingy club, and even more in scenes where he feeds his pet turtles in his ratty apartment. The cliches of the sports movie is that they’re defined by Inspirational Locker Room Speeches and kinetic movement; Rocky is defined by the main character’s endearingly goofy rambling and by stillness. Stallone’s script is layered and deep in ways that people don’t typically associate with Sylvester Stallone, and plays the role similarly.
For the reasons above, it is at once entirely reasonable and sort of baffling that Rocky has spawned five sequels and a spinoff. On one hand, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is the kind of enduring underdog whose saga was primed to be tailored to whatever era in which the film was made, rising from broken dreams post-Watergate in the first film to proving American supremacy over the Soviet Union in the mid-80s. On the other hand, Rocky is a relatively quiet and unassuming movie given the franchise it would become. There’s little of the Dream Big mentality for which the series has become a shorthand. Over the course of the next few movies, the Italian Stallion would become a world champion, have that title challenged, and prove his supremacy once and again. In Rocky, he’s fighting to prove he matters and that his life is worth something. Maybe that’s what drives tourists up those art museum step in the first place.
*Though not the song “Rocky” that was coincidentally released by the band the same year as the movie.