I have an admission of guilt. I’ve now lived in Philadelphia for three and a half years, and I have never seen Rocky.
Let me be more specific about my Rocky ignorance. I can hum the musical score and I’ve even interviewed its composer, Bill Conti. But I haven’t watched a second of the films. Not the original, not sequels II through V, not the rebooted Rocky Balboa or the surprisingly well-done Creed (so I’m told).
Call me a heretic, a heathen or whatever other unsightly word you want, but boxing movies never really interested me growing up. If it makes you feel better, I haven’t seen any of the original six George Lucas Star Wars movies either.
I admit, when writing this column, I actually had to look up whether Rocky’s last name was “Marciano” or “Balboa” because I wasn’t entirely sure. The closest I’ve come to watching the famous scene of Sylvester Stallone running down the Ben Franklin Parkway and through the Italian Market was a rip-off video made by four-star recruit D’Andre Swift to announce his commitment to play football at the University of Georgia.
Based on the looks of dismay I receive from Philadelphia natives when I tell them I haven’t seen Rocky, you would think I committed a cardinal sin. To me, they’re just boxing movies and I wondered how they could still be relevant to generations that weren’t even born when the original Rocky came out in 1976.
I learned from IMdB that the premise is startlingly unoriginal for sports movies: the underdog faces his Goliath, a veteran hero makes a comeback, hard work pays off yet good narrowly fails to triumph over evil. How could a series so rife with clichéd storylines be so iconic? Clearly I was missing something.
So I decided to do a little anthropological research.
I spent an hour last Sunday perched incognito on the stone steps above the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The whole time I was there, the line of eager people waiting to get a picture with their fists thrust in the air like the bronze behemoth himself was no shorter than 20 people. They don’t get more than three or four seconds to capture the moment, yet the stream of humanity is constant.
“Something about the way they did the slow motion scenes was spot-on,” a woman says as she saunters past my hiding place.
From where I’m sitting, I can’t see the poses the tourists strike; only the reluctant dads, cooperative friends and acquaintances who waited in line just to raise their iPhones overhead, angling their eyes above sunglasses rims to capture both human feet and metallic fists in the frame. It’s all rather bizarre.
What struck me most were the different languages I heard from the Rocky devotees as they strolled up the museum steps past where I sat. There was Spanish, Mandarin, French, English and some vaguely Eastern European dialect I couldn’t identify. It was almost as if I stumbled upon some sort of pilgrimage.
That’s when I started to put it together. The constancy and diversity of people flocking to the statue proves that the story of the underdog is resonant. Clearly, the lessons taught in sports in victory and in loss can transcend a boxing ring and pop culture to enter an entirely different dimension of meaning.
Rocky is so resonant that he is probably mentioned in the same breath as Ben Franklin, cheesesteaks and the Liberty Bell when people think of Philadelphia. The storyline of the movies also gives Philly a sense of identity and pride – the underdog East Coast city playing second fiddle to New York known not for its glamor but for its grit. A metropolis quick to show off the chip on its shoulder.
Trust me, you don’t have to see the movies to understand that aspect of Philadelphia’s character. All of this is just my long way of saying that sports – even the ones memorialized in movie scripts rather than history books – are pretty crucial to a city’s sense of self. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone from Cleveland how much the 2016 NBA Championship meant.
In the process of writing this, I’ve come to understand the facial expressions of my friends from Philadelphia. I really am a disgrace.
But Fall Break starts tomorrow, and I think I know how I’m spending my two days off.
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