The Rocky film series may be the most legendary sports movies of all time. I had the privilege of watching the very first 1976 Rocky film for my blog. I have seen every Rocky, even the most recent Rocky Balboa that may have been a forceful effort by the producers to re-kindle the legend. Most are aware of the plot, but the very first Rocky film was the beginning of one of those tremendous underdog legends. The main character, Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer from Philadelphia just trying to make a name for himself. Rocky gets the opportunity of a lifetime, to fight the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed who chooses to give a local underdog a shot at the title after his opponent gets hurt. What makes this movie a classic is the underdog theme, the idea of a nobody getting the chance to be somebody. Watching this movie looking for elements of mise-en-scene gave me a new and interesting outlook on the movie. A few things that stood out were the setting of the movie, Avildsen's use of mirrors to depict character development, and the music which not only encompassed but heightened the theme of the movie.
I think shooting this movie in Philadelphia brought some significant cultural implications to the Rocky series. Maybe the most memorable scene from Rocky is when he is training to fight the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Rocky's training scene became an intricate cultural aspect to the movie. He runs through the city of Philadelphia and finishes by running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With the inspirational music playing in the background, we see Rocky run to the top of these tall stairs, as if to represent his personal struggle and journey to the top. This scene has become an extremely popular parody in the media ever since. Now whenever we see someone running up steps in television shows or movies, we usually attribute it to the Rocky scene. Not only do we attribute those parodies back to Rocky, but I think Avildsen was also trying to portray an underlying theme about the city of Philadelphia. I think that having Rocky Balboa come from Philadelphia and not New York, Los Angeles, or Miami gave viewers a hard-working, gritty perception of the city of Philadelphia. For people who may have never been to the city, Avildsen used Rocky as a physical portrayal of what Philadelphia is all about. For people who actually live in Philadelphia, a sense of pride was felt watching this underdog story about an average “Philadelphian” just like them. In fact, the City Commerce Director at the time, Dick Doran, claimed that Rocky had done more for the city's image than anyone since Benjamin Franklin.
In my opinion, the music in Rocky is one of the best movie soundtracks you will ever find. Composed by Bill Conti, this soundtrack more than appropriately embodies the entire theme of the movie. The main song, “Gonna Fly Now” made it to number one on the Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 list. I think Avildsen made a genius effort to have fitting music to accompany the movie, and he succeeded. Maybe my opinion is biased because I am an athlete, and this is a sports film, but something about the trumpets in the beginning of “Gonna Fly Now” gives you this feeling of motivation. I think many athletes would agree that Rocky music is some of the most inspirational music to listen to while working out. Clearly, that is not a coincidence. The music in Rocky is so renowned that almost anyone could hear the tune and identify it with Rocky. I think Avildsen understood that the music would bring a powerful element to the movie, and Bill Conti composed a soundtrack that not only identifies with the story of Rocky, but with the concept of motivation and working hard.
Something I noticed and somewhat struggled to explain at first was Avildsen's use of mirrors to document self-esteem and character growth in the movie. It first came to mind when Rocky is standing in front of the mirror in his apartment, talking to himself and looking at himself. What I noticed in looking for mise-en-scene that I never noticed before, is that Rocky actually rehearses what he says to Adrian in the store the next day. I saw this use of the mirror as showing the initial lack of confidence in Rocky because he has to practice what he will say to the girl he loves in front of a mirror. When he looks in the mirror, he has this look of doubt and disbelief in himself. He sees a no good bum that couldn't possibly be good enough for a girl like Adrian. In the mirror he even has a picture of himself as a boy, and he looks at it as if to express his own disappointment in himself. Then, when Rocky visits his good friend Paulie at a local bar, the mise-en-scene is shown again with the concept of a mirror. We get to know Paulie's character just by seeing him shave in the mirror. Paulie uses a small, cracked and broken mirror, which to me portrayed his own disapproval in himself. This broken mirror Paulie uses also enhances Rocky's image as the hero. Rocky's mirror in his apartment is tall and presentable, which ultimately showed Paulie's dependence on Rocky to help make his own life better.
I saw the mise-en-scene in Rocky as blending in with this epic underdog story. The Philadelphia complex gave the movie some significant cultural elements. Avildsen using Philadelphia created an image of the city that resonates with the general perception of Philadelphia today. Having Rocky Balboa represent Philadelphia made his character a symbol of hope and ambition, qualities that most “Philadelphians” are quick to associate with their home city. The Rocky music not only complemented the film, but provided an inspirational sound that will always be attributed to the idea of working hard, overcoming obstacles, and achieving the impossible. I thought Avildsen used mirrors to show character growth without communicating it directly through dialogue. The mise-en-scene of this movie contributed to the reason why we consider Rocky one of the all time great sports movies and perhaps the most legendary underdog story since David vs. Goliath.