Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.
For some reason, Rocky (1976) has been all over TV lately. Even my local PBS affiliate has gotten into the action, running it twice in the last three weeks. Seeing it on my channel guide made me realize that I hadn’t seen the original Rocky from start to finish in a very long time. In other words, “Yo! Adrian! I gave Rocky the re-watchterpiece theater treatment!”
The First Viewing
The irony about Rocky is that I’ve seen it parodied a lot more than I’ve actually seen the original film. The first and really only time I saw it was when I was 10 years old- and I guess the movie was also 10, since we were both born in the same year. And even then, it was all about parody. For weeks after seeing the movie, my friends and I would mock Rocky’s slobbery voice. “Yo, Adrian! Let’s play some football after school!” Or “Yo, Adrian! What’d you get on that math problem?!?!”
Of course, I remember the score. How could you forget the score? And I remembered the meat locker boxing. And more than anything, I remembered the final fight and that it had ended in a draw. I felt cheated, even if I had enjoyed the movie. In short, my first viewing wasn’t the most insightful but it certainly covered the high notes. I was 10. What do you want?
Revisiting such a beloved and acclaimed movie after so long is a bit of a tricky proposition. Its place in the AFI Top 100 made me expect that I’d find something on equal footing with, say, Sunset Boulevard or Fargo. That’s a completely unfair expectation for any film. In a lot of ways, I found Rocky the film to be very similar to Rocky, the fighter. Rocky wasn’t a technically sound fighter. He was an underdog in every way. But with enough grit and heart to make David Eckstein jealous, he did just barely enough to get by. Much the same could be said of the film.
Before continuing my analogy, let me explain that when I say “just enough to get by” in terms of the film’s overall quality, I mean “just enough to get by as a classic.” Technically, it was a little clunky, a little too on-the-nose. Rocky owns pets. Naturally, he owns turtles- as in, the creatures from The Tortoise and the Hare that prove that slow and steady wins the race. But as he slowly transforms himself into a legitimate contender to oppose Apollo Creed, he winds up owning a dog that nobody wants. You might call it an underdog, as it were.
The whole thing takes place around the American bicentennial, in 1976. And of course, it could only take place in Philadelphia, the birthplace of freedom,the original meeting place of the First Continental Congress, and home of the Liberty Bell. Creed poses the title fight as a chance to prove why America is great- that each and every person, including a schmuck from the streets of Philly, would have a chance to become a champion on the country’s birthday. In the meantime, the training montage song literally tells the audience that Rocky is “trying hard now” and “getting strong now.” All of this stuff is a little too blatant for my tastes.
Having said that, I also think there’s something to be said for the simplicity, which is another aspect of the film that mirrors its titular character. Rocky Balboa is a simple guy. He could be anyone, or at least that’s what we’re all led to believe. Thus, despite how blatantly the script tugs at emotions, it’s perfectly justifiable in doing so because it helps give the film the ability to reach an awfully wide audience. And that’s precisely why it remains as wildly popular as it is today.
The film’s finale is clearly a large part of the film’s charm, and it’s aided tremendously by the score. It builds to a crescendo and matches the fighters move for move. I’d almost like to see that same fight sequence without any soundtrack just to see how much the score adds to it. And the characters are all very memorable, whether it’s Paulie and his pleas for a mob job, mousy Adrian, bombastic Apollo, the gravelly-voiced Mickey, or the dopey-but-lovable Rocky.
At the end of the day, it’s easy to see why Rocky is such a beloved film. Everyone loves an underdog and the film never lets you forget- ever, under any circumstances- that Rocky is an underdog.