Review – ’40 years of rocky: the birth of a classic’

Five decades since the release of the original Rocky (1976), it’s writer and leading actor, Sylvester Stallone, narrates production secrets behind the treasured landmark film that turned him into a worldwide idol in 40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic, a documentary short, edited and directed by Derek Wayne Johnson. With a running-time of 30 minutes, one wishes the documentary wouldn’t have ended as fast as it does, since it’s fresh and well-done. John G. Avildsen, the director of Rocky (1976) and Rocky V (1990), provided rare archive footage from behind-the-scenes, which seemed to be shot on super 8 cameras. These never-before-seen film recordings are finely chopped together with an added layer of narration by Sylvester Stallone, who recounts the filmmaking process based on the unique footage we see on-screen. There’s also an original music score composed by Greg Sims that adds another layer representing the triumph behind the character of Rocky Balboa, in addition to the life of Sylvester Stallone, which took a turn within a single year in the 1970s, after Rocky became a global phenomenon as the highest grossing film in 1976, in addition to winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

In the documentary, we don’t see Sylvester Stallone in the present-day, but only hear his voice-over narrating the archive footage, which appears to be just as fresh for him, as it is for us. There’s an enthusiasm in Stallone’s voice that makes us feel he’s watching the images for the first time. Stallone talks about how the distribution company, United Artists, gave him a chance after he offered to sell the screenplay under the condition that he play the lead role of Rocky. He discusses the use of the Periscope camera, a horizontally squeezed point-of-view that employs a blend of mirrors to manipulate light in capturing images one otherwise wouldn’t be able to. In addition, Stallone mentions the use of the Steadicam, a stabilizer mount that was introduced into filmmaking in 1975 and revolutionized the motion picture industry, having been used on almost every film made in Hollywood until the present-day.

Sylvester Stallone alludes to a fact that many Rocky fans may or may not be aware of: the Rocky films are all romantic love stories. The films of the franchise are not about boxing, they’re all about Rocky’s love for Adrian. “It happens to be a serious love story.” Stallone says. “Neither Adrian or Rocky are graceful in life, but together, they’re perfect.” Even in Rocky Balboa (2006) when Adrian had passed away, a great deal of time in that film is spent showing Rocky grieving, through spending time at her grave or venting with rage to Paulie (Burt Young) about how much he misses her. Rocky even visits the ice-skating rink where they went on their first date. Even Rocky IV (1985) is a serious love story. Contrary to popular belief, that it’s about Rocky avenging the death of Apollo Creed by flying to Russia to defeat Ivan Drago, Rocky IV is really about proving to Adrian the level of his self-worth and personal belief. He turns away from her after getting into a heated argument and leaves the USA without saying goodbye. He’s disappointed in her, because she doesn’t believe in him anymore. Rocky doesn’t grow out his beard because he’s attempting to get in-the-zone during training to fight Drago, he grows it because he’s depressed, dejected and disheartened because he doesn’t have his wife’s support. Until he gets it, when she surprises him by visiting his cabin in the alps to reconcile their issues, granting him a second wind of energy he needed desperately from his wife, to go and defeat Drago once and for all.  

Stallone talks about how he didn’t know anything about boxing, but he had enough courage to be willing to try. Many of us have inadvertently neglected to realize that his brother, the musician Frank Stallone, performed a song called ‘Valentine’ in Rocky while standing on the street corner. The documentary mentions how Stallone wrote every single punch of the fight with Apollo Creed that resulted in 32 pages of length. The sequences were meticulously choreographed as Stallone rewrote scenes from the script during set-ups for shots amid principle photography to compensate for the budget. We even get to see the rare images of his father, Frank Stallone Sr., who was cast as the bell ringer in the final fight, Creed vs. Balboa. Stallone talks about his relaxed and comical demeanor in between shots during filmmaking that would relax the crew, all reasons why Rocky is a landmark of American cinema and a timeless film. It’s interesting to note that United Artists fallaciously attempted to convince Stallone to take off the fedora hat he wore for the character of Rocky Balboa because it was Gene Hackman’s signature in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. “So, what, that’s the end of wearing hats?” Stallone said, who wore the fedora, making it the signature trademark of Rocky Balboa.

Derek Wayne Johnson, the director of this magical documentary, executed a clever split-screen shot showing the rehearsals of super 8 home video on one side with matching footage from the actual Rocky film on the other side, resulting in a nostalgic experience. The irony of Sylvester Stallone’s telling of making this film is incredible when he reveals that the theater Rocky premiered at in New York was the theater he attended to see movies as a kid and worked at as an usher when he was an adult. This irony is wonderful as is Sylvester Stallone’s fairy-tale story behind the making of Rocky. Imagine attending a movie theater several times as a kid and growing up to work at that theater, then suddenly one day, through hard work, enduring pain and suffering, you find inspiration to write a script within three days, a studio gets interested, but you’re wise enough to not sell-out and counter-offer its sale with the condition that you’re in the film as the lead and then voila, you shock the world as a global superstar with unexpected success and your life changes forever as you ride to the top of Mount Everest because of your hard work and determination. Though this documentary is short-lived, it makes you want to play it back and watch it again because the footage is incredibly rare and beautiful.

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