PHILADELPHIA — On Nov. 21, 1976, audiences met Rocky Balboa, the southpaw boxer from south Philadelphia. Four decades later, Sylvester Stallone’s lovable character resonates with fans drawn to his underdog tale of determination, grit and sleepy-eyed charm.
The reach of “Rocky” is international, and the film serves as a slice of Americana. It is shorthand for Philadelphia as much as the Liberty Bell or Benjamin Franklin.
“Anytime we are speaking to overseas visitors … the conversation always turns, at some point, to ‘Rocky,’” said Julie Coker Graham, president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They ask, ‘Have you met Rocky?” A lot of them think it’s an actual, real-life person.”
On the film’s 40th anniversary, a few reasons for its enduring legacy:
Lovable underdog: Written by Stallone in three days, fans fell hard for the ballad of Rocky Balboa. For the uninitiated: The small-time boxer from the heavily Italian neighborhood of South Philly stumbles into a bout with the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, fighting in the city to celebrate America’s bicentennial. To get him into fighting shape, Rocky (played by Stallone) is trained by the peppery Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith). Rocky also finds love in the film with sheepish neighborhood pet store clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire). Though he ultimately loses the fight, Rocky proves himself and wins Adrian’s heart, making him the winner of much more than a title.
The film itself was a long shot, made on a budget of only $1 million and shot in 28 days, with a largely unknown cast, including Stallone himself. And it was shot in working-class Philadelphia, a city that — despite its roots as the crucible of freedom — had long had a chip on its shoulder as second-tier as compared to more cultured East Coast metropolises like New York and Boston. (It is worth noting that the film had its premiere in New York.)
Cheers for rocky: What the movie lacked in beauty, it made up for in heart, something that resonated with audiences worldwide. The film was the highest-grossing of the year, earning $117 million at the North American box office and another $107 million overseas. “Rocky” received 10 Oscar nominations in nine categories at the Academy Awards, winning three: best picture, best director (John G. Avildsen) and best film editing. Stallone, Burgess and Shire were all nominated in acting categories, and Stallone was nominated for his screenplay.
“Rocky” is preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Gonna fly now: The score for “Rocky,” which was also nominated for an Oscar, was penned by Bill Conti. The main song, “Gonna Fly Now,” was originally intended as filler for the training sequence marking Rocky’s journey from amateur to contender. The opening fanfare is among the most recognizable in American culture, and the soaring melody that plays on the melancholic theme woven throughout the movie is the backdrop to Rocky doing impressive one-armed pushups, punching meat in his girlfriend’s brother’s butcher shop and running through Philadelphia’s Italian Market, along the Schuylkill River and past the shipyards.
Conti went on to win an Oscar for his score to 1983’s “The Right Stuff” and made music recognizable to millions in theme songs to “Dynasty” and “Falcon Crest.”
The Rocky steps and statue: The montage climaxes in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, as Rocky bounds up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, raising his arms in triumph. Four decades later, the run and pose atop the steps are re-created daily in Philadelphia, mostly by tourists. In 1982, a statue of Rocky commissioned by Stallone for “Rocky III” was placed in the spot where he stood in the original film. Its current home is just to the right of the steps and is a selfie stop for visitors.
Rocky’s next chapter: The original movie was followed by six sequels. In 2015, Rocky was reborn in “Creed,” the story of Adonis Creed, the son of his nemesis-turned-best friend, Apollo. An aging and dying Rocky trains Adonis for a brawl not unlike the grizzled boxer’s first fight nearly two generations earlier.
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