Still flying : ‘Rocky’ — the million to one shot

Published: November 22, 2016

On November 21, 1976, the world met Rocky Balboa – a southpaw boxer from Philadelphia. Four decades later, the iconic character – played by Sylvester Stallone – fans are still drawn to his tale of determination, grit and sleepy-eyed charm.

The reach of Rocky is international and the film serves as a slice of Americana. It is shorthand for Philadelphia, as much as the Liberty Bell or Benjamin Franklin. “Anytime we are speaking to overseas visitors, the conversation always turns to Rocky,” Julie Coker Graham, president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau was quoted by The Indian Express as sourced from Associated Press. “They ask, ‘Have you met Rocky?’ A lot of them think it’s an actual, real-life person.”

Written by Stallone in just three days, fans fell hard for the ballad of Rocky Balboa. For the uninitiated, the small-time boxer from the heavily Italian neighbourhood of South Philly stumbles into the world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, fighting in the city.

The film itself was a long shot, made on a budget of only $1 million and shot in 28 days, with a largely unknown cast, including Stallone himself. And it was shot in working-class Philadelphia, a city that had long borne a chip on its shoulder as second-tier, compared to more cultured East Coast metropolises like New York and Boston.

What the movie lacked in beauty, it made up for in heart. Rocky became the highest-grosser of the year, earning $117 million at the North American box office and another $107 million overseas. It received 10 Oscar nominations in nine categories, winning the Best Picture, Best Director (John G. Avildsen) and Best Film Editing trophies. Burgess and Shire were nominated for acting while Stallone was nominated for both, acting and his screenplay.

Rocky is preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” It was also ranked one of the greatest sports films ever made and is the second-best film about boxing after Raging Bull, according to the American Film Institute.

The score for Rocky, which was also nominated for an Oscar, was composed by Bill Conti. The main song Gonna Fly Now was originally intended as filler for the training sequence marking Rocky’s journey from amateur to a contender. The opening fanfare is among the most recognisable in American culture, and the soaring melody that plays on the melancholic theme woven throughout the movie is the backdrop to Rocky doing impressive one-armed pushups, punching meat and running through Philadelphia’s Italian Market, along the Schuylkill River and past the shipyards.

The montage climaxes in a memorable scene wherein Rocky bounds up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, raising his arms in triumph. Four decades later, the run and pose atop the steps are re-created daily, mostly by tourists. In 1982, a statue of Rocky commissioned by Stallone for Rocky III was placed in the spot where he stood in the original film. Its current home is just to the right of the steps – a selfie stop for visitors.

The original movie was followed by six sequels. In 2015, Rocky was reborn in Creed, the story of Adonis Creed, the son of his nemesis-turned-best friend, Apollo. An ageing and dying Rocky trains Adonis for a brawl not unlike the grizzled boxer’s first fight nearly two generations earlier. The New York Times reviewed it as a “dandy piece of entertainment, soothingly old-fashioned and bracingly up-to-date.”

Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2016.

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