Off the Shelf…'Rocky'

Dun nun nun nun nun nun nun nun nun nun, dun nun nun nun nun nun nun nun nun nun, nun nun nun nun nun nun nun nuuuun…..dun nun nuuuun, dun nun nuuun…well for those of you thinking a couple of keys got stuck on my keyboard, that was actually my piss poor attempt to convey the Rocky theme music in Onomatopoeia.  Doesn’t quite come across as it sounds in my head or do justice to the remarkable film, but hopefully this recommendation/review might.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8DlBN_LLiA

For all those “Italian Stallion” fans I out there, I am pleased to be writing about one of my very favorite films of all time.  Let me repeat that…of…all…time.  Never before, or since really, have I enjoyed an such an inspirational underdog film as much as I did watching Rocky.  Now was actually a B-movie when it was released, but, based solely on its message, became the underdog that was nominated for and took home multiple Oscars (including Best Picture).  It made millions cheer and to this day keeps on inspiring anyone with a dream.  Over the years, this brilliant film keeps on giving and I find more things I love about it, the more elements in the film resonate with myself and how true to life and relatable is this piece of motion picture history.

The story of Rocky is more the story of Stallone’s life and just knowing some of that back story makes the film and it’s concept so much more appealing and personable.  The tag line for the film, “His whole life was a million-to-one shot“, reads so astute and just gives me respect for the film and him as a person.  It just kind of hits you at the core when you watch this film about a person whose own existence is so pathetic and dismal but he just keeps on searching and trying.  To steal a line from Galaxy Quest, Rocky’s outlook on life despite the defeats and set backs really is “Never give up and never surrender“.  Actually the more appropriate line to use would be from his pugilist bookend to the series, Rocky Balboa, when he states, “Life’s not it’s not about how hard you hit.  It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”  Too bad it took him 30 years to craft that gem, but it definitely is relevant in reviewing this film for sure.

Stallone, in a bold move (willing to take the role in the film at the minimum actor’s wage) would not sell the film’s rights unless he could star in it.  I’m sure you’ve all heard the stories that “Stallone only had $107 in the bank, and his wife was pregnant and he had to sell his dog” before he got his big break to do this film.  But even then this film was shot on a shoe string budget and they used almost every cent just to get the film finished.

However great Stallone (as Rocky) is in this, he’s really nothing without the amazingly talented and effective cast members bringing this (only now realized) ensemble cast to create a masterpiece of film.  With so many other boxing movies out there glorifying their titular pugilist, this film took a different approach.  The films beauty was that it got you to cheer for Rocky before he even entered the ring by simultaneously winning you over with his personality and admiring his underdog spirit celebrating his progress, not the prize fight.  It’s about personal goals, overcoming adversity and believing in yourself.  I always try to watch this film specifically close to Christmas as it does take place in the 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years.  It’s sort of my own personal holiday pick me up and I love it ever so much more for that reason than staples like It’s A Wonderful Life (which is equally fantastic, don’t get me wrong).

Somethings do get better with age and sometimes age.  Succeeding years may make a movie more than it should be, or will only appeal to a later generation of film fans, but the story of Rocky is so inspiring that it reaches out to everyone.  I believe one of the main draws of the story is it’s frank and genuine bits of humanity and a level of realness that almost anyone can sympathize with.  Rocky’s own failures in life have stripped most of his pride but he still tries to chase his dreams.  A bit of an odd duck, that awkwardness and social isolation of his own life (on top of everything else not happening for him) is the one characteristic he has in common with (his almost mirror-image) Adrian.

Funny but Talia Shire, hot off the success of the Godfather, found herself nearly slumming for this role.  The budget (as well as the pay) was minimal, and so much so that the production couldn’t afford a wardrobe department.  So she, just like everyone you saw wearing any and all street clothes, was actually her own clothes.  But amid the glasses, the hats and coats, Adrain, had this quite power about her.  Hidden under the shy demeanor she showed herself as the perfect compliment to Rocky.  Now Talia is a talented actress and sometimes you can do more with a look or a gesture than you could ever do with lines of dialogue.  If you watch it again try to pay more attention to Adrian in scenes in the pet shop and on their date at the ice rink.  Not Oscar winning but it’s there.

In terms of a love story, Adrian and Rocky are mirror images but Paulie and Rocky are written in as almost the same character.  Both are down on their luck, both have nothing much to show for their life’s efforts and find that similarity as a basis of friendship.  But to Paulie, looking to make a change in his life, will do anything and , in sort of a “grass is always greener” point of view, finds Rocky’s life a little less demeaning.  So much so that he thinks that working as a leg breaker for Mr. Gatzo is better than freezing in the meat house.  Burt Young as Paulie is is just the right kind of actor to portray the kind of powerless raw emotion that embodies Rocky.  But, where as Rocky has an outlet (and now a chance at bettering himself) Paulie feels, like always, that he will continually be left behind and be even more alone than he is now.  Fighting alcoholism, fears of abandonment and jealousy (all these elements present but inferred and underplayed) his emotions and physicality are brought to life in great vividness.  Young’s performance is so shatteringly real that even Stallone seems frozen and stunned by his .  I don’t know why but I just enjoy watching Burt’s blow-up scenes on repeat viewings.  I guess it’s the combination of intensity and fragility that get me every time and it seems only Burt could pull of something like those scenes.

Burgess Meredith will forever be known as ‘The Penguin’, which is a little unfair since he is a famous and brilliant stage and screen from many years before Adam West and Burt Wards’ Batman.  As Mickey, he is more or less Rocky’s unappreciative father figure.  Ignoring but then riding him for his failures, Mickey is also upset with his fall from glory and his wasted life (see a pattern with these characters?) seems fit to want to ride Rocky’s newfound success without guilt of his past neglectful actions.  The scene where Mickey visits Rocky and tries to say he’s sorry, without actually saying it, really is a great scene.  It shows Mickey’s tough demeanor all but stripped away as he looks for help from the man he’s never give it to once.  For as loud and bitter as Mickey is in the gym his meekness is quite impressive to see a complete 180 from the gym gruffness to this timid and sad old man.

Now where would a David and Goliath story be without Goliath?  Carl Weathers, becoming a mix of Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier, brings the one glimmer of hope to Rocky’s world in the form of a boxing event sold merely to promote his own pompous and inflated greatness.  Apollo Creed, the loud mouth pugilist is the one character in this film that really is Rocky’s polar opposite.  Whereas everyone else is down trodden and defeated, Apollo is the champ and trouts his own success with every breath.  I do like how in this film, someone’s own arrogance can prove to be his weakness.  His confidence never let’s him think that facing someone so unknown, who is s threat because he really has nothing left to shoot for, can prove to be an unassumingly intimidating adversary.  In a way, this film is not only Rocky’s rising to the challenge and proving he can overcome incredible odds, it also teaches that something (anything really) in our lives which seems so intimating and immovable, might not be as difficult or impossible as we, in our minds, make something out to be.  It’s with determination and effort that we may just go the distance, or even further, if we just give it a shot.  Of course it helps with Bill Conti’s incredibly inspiring music.

Just like today’s filmmakers are creating new and innovative devices and technology to make better movies, Rocky was no exception.  This movie, I think I can say, would not have had the memorable, no, iconic scenes if it weren’t for one said new technological achievement.  To film fans now a days, the use of a steadicam is almost as much as a given as color or sound.  OK, that’s a bit of a stretch but it is in nearly ever film and sometimes it’s inclusion can be majorly overlooked.  Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown created the first prototype and sold it to just 3 studios.  One of them happened to be MGM and this was one of the first films to use this amazing technology.  In the past, and still today even, filmmakers use a camera and track system in which they lay tracks to follow the scene with a smooth flow.  Well that’s all well and good for a slow drama, not so much the case for a sports movie.

The use of the steadicam made possible so many classic scenes, that without the advent of such a great piece of technology, you couldn’t have so many dynamic shots without circling the camera around and seeing the camera tracks.  So thanks to Garrett, Rocky has truly memorable shots and the movie succeeded far better than anyone would have imagined.  The scene in the Shamrock Meat House where the camera followed Rocky and Paulie in and around the hanging meat, not to mention the famous mean punching scene that followed.  Also, no camera would ever have been able to follow Rocky up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum, thus making those steps, and the backdrop of the Museum pretty much a national treasures/landmarks.  Lastly, as gritty and in your face as the boxing was at the film’s finale it never coud have been done being that close to the actors and moving so well with them without shaking a camera or again seeing the track.  The steadicam is just as important as Stallone’s touching script, the amazingly beloved characters of Apollo Creed, Mickey, Adrian and Rocky and the ultimate inspirational music of Bill Conti.  Had this piece of equipment not been available for Rocky, I don’t think this film would have had the impact.  It’s importance is very understated.

Rocky truly was the product of a perfect storm of talents.  Many of those talents were unaware of their underlying greatness at the time, but just like Rocky himself, this film was an underdog that delivered and  just kept on giving.  Almost like a fine wine, this movie really does get better with age and there are so many great points and lessons about life that this film’s message can be understood by anyone, at any age and across all walks of life.  Simply an outstanding movie and worth of all it’s praise and more.

G-S-T Ruling – 5/5

G-S-T Seal of Approval:  GRANTED…This film is a Great Cinemaitc Treasure