The seventies were the Italian-American years. The Godfather was released in 1972, Taxi Driver was released in 1976, and so was Carrie. That year also marked the release of Rocky and Sylvester Stallone becoming more famous than Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The film was not directed by an Italian descendant like Coppola, Scorsese or De Palma, but by John Avildsen, a rather autochthonous American, if such thing exists, that was 41 years old at the time and died in 2017 after directing two Rocky movies and three entries of The Karate Kid, another very popular franchise. He even won a Best Director Academy Award for this film which, if there’s such a thing as ownership when it comes to filmmaking, belongs more to its lead actor, screenwriter and producer, than it is to the director. Stallone is so much Rocky, that he even made his dog work and had his brother write a song for the movie. After seeing it forty years later, I found out, quite surprisingly that the Oscar for Directing was well deserved: the movie flows, is visually elegant, and is successful in pulling off several shots in open ground. The final fight is narrated with sobriety and effectiveness, being less ostentatious than the ones in Raging Bull (a film that serves as a tragic counterpart to this one) and its shooting combines the intensity proper of such occasion with the particular lightheartedness that characterizes the film.
Even though it is a story about boxing, even though its underlying subject is the American Dream and their famous second chances, Rocky is more likely to be a romantic comedy and we might even say it is an undercover musical taking place in a Fairy Land that answers to the name of Philadelphia, symbol of independence, the Constitution and the greatness of America. In Rocky there are neither villains nor punishment, not even losers; like if in that sordid neighborhood with bums and small time delinquents, populated by hopeless Italians, comes out of nowhere an angel of mercy and prosperity in the form of one of them, Rocky Balboa, a rather dumb kid, animal lover, a fighter with little ambition and hidden talent, but with the manners of a dandy and the movements of a dancer.
The surroundings of Rocky Balboa are rather depressing. He lives in a pigsty, collects a pittance for his fights, trains in a dirty gym and works as a collector for a loan shark. Paulie, his best friend, is a resentful violent oaf, on top of all that played by Burt Young, an unpleasant supporting character if there’s any. One can say something similar of the insufferable Burgess Meredith, who plays the miserable, resentful coach, as well as the two hand-carved characters we can find in the boxing impresario and the loan shark. However, Rocky’s good heart ends up redeeming them all, after he establishes two connections to the lighter side of life. One is with the delicate Adrian (a great performance by Talia Shire), Paulie’s sister: Rocky and Adrian are two timid souls that fall in love and protect each other against all adversity. There’s a special tenderness in this couple that also provides for great comedy moments in their intimacy. In one of them, when Rocky is about to go out into the boxing ring, she says “I’ll be here waiting for you”, and he answers with “How about I stay here and you fight”. A reply worthy of Argentinian boxer Ringo Bonavena.
The other connection is with heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, inspired by Muhammad Ali for his ingenious rhetoric and his talent for showmanship, who offers a complete unknown like Rocky a shot at the title. In fact, the very smart Apollo (inside the boxing ring and out) is a sweetened and patriotic version of Ali, a Wise Man of sorts that represents a sense of humor and joy for everyone. The day of the fight he appears dressed as George Washington, throwing away dollar bills at the audience; you won’t find a better synthesis of American symbols. Even though they beat the crap out of each other, Rocky will never cease to admire Apollo: his stature as a sportsman is a motive for widespread happiness.
Rocky Balboa’s fate in boxing is similar to Sylvester Stallone’s in show business: for the actor, the movie represented a chance no different than the character had. Back then, Stallone was a third-rate performer, but managed to get his script made without having to renounce playing the lead role that would make him a star. With his congenital facial paralysis and his rather unorthodox way of speaking, Stallone strides all over the film like a future star: his Rocky dances, runs and jabs into the air in key historical American sceneries. I think I never saw coming how singular this movie was going to be.