It’s more than a little challenging to say anything about Rocky that doesn’t read as a simple retread of past praise. Anyone has a right to ask, “What is there left to be said about John G. Avildsen’s Rocky?” Film fans of any years can reasonably expect yet another paean extolling the virtues of a film that birthed a franchise which alternated between the interminable and the sublime.
Just try taking a pass at original criticism of other enduring films of the time. Endeavouring to say something new about Jaws, Halloween or Star Wars, presents a similar challenge in scale and scope. The histories have been plumbed, the uninitiated have become true believers, and the skeptics remain staunch in a refusal to be swayed.
Perhaps there’s an angle to consider regarding the film’s timing for American cinema in the 1970s. Fresh voices were vying to be heard, trying to break through the fog of the studios’ commercial dominance. Each of those voices were Rocky in their own right, fighting for their chance in front of the crowds. There’s something special that remains about Rocky beyond its triumphant underdog story, though. A transitive property that reminds us all of what it took for our families to take root.
What makes Rocky truly unique and enduring is the echo of the immigrant’s story in the epic of American history. The character Rocky, and any around him, embodies the adversity that every newcomer has faced when seeking an embrace by the culture at large. There is something elemental and genetic about the character of Rocky Balboa, especially for American audiences. A nation of immigrants will always know by experience or tale of the fight to gain respect within the culture at large. While they may not be the first to come to mind in modern times, Italians had a hard path to walk before they were accepted.
Rocky’s quest was simply to be counted. He held as more important than winning, something antithetical to the establishment. The entire moral of Rocky is about finding worth; Rocky Balboa wants nothing more than a place at the table, acknowledging his basic dignity as a human being working his way through life.
Just as important is the embrace of the American Ideal: that any person can find their significance in their purpose. It’s a story that finds resonance with anyone who’s fumbled their way through life, or heard their stories about their grandfather being the first to speak English fluently, or what their parents sacrificed to provide a better life. These intrinsic cultural roots are as much a part of Rocky as the Catholic echoes in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. To deny them is to deny the cultural identity of the author.
Bill Conti’s magnificent score plays as much a role in the indelibility of Rocky as John Williams’ signature collaborations with Spielberg and Lucas do with their movies. You simply cannot divorce the two. The larger voice of the score emphasizes Rocky’s humility before the task at hand. It’s a subtle and demanding score that betrays a tenderness the character himself can’t yet vocalize, and perhaps never will. It simultaneously, magnificently, communicates a grandeur to his task that even he can’t realize.
A testament to this is how the song ‘Gonna Fly Now’ remains a cultural benchmark. Even those who haven’t seen the film are familiar with its stirring composition, either directly or by its reference in other works. While ‘Evergreen’ from A Star Is Born won the Oscar that year, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who knows or favors that over Conti’s magnificent song. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that all but the most die-hard of film devotees even can recall ‘Evergreen’ without assistance.
One of the oddest things about Rocky is that its Oscar nominations, and wins, seem of little consequence. This is a work that doesn’t need the lauding of tastemakers; like its titular hero, what matters is that it makes the most of its time in the ring. No one cares what awards it has won, or lost. Awards are for other people, titles are for those obsessed with them.
It just matters that it made the most of its moment.
Which is your favourite movie in the Rocky saga? Let us know!