I didn't learn much new about the success story of Sylvester Stallone from his introspective and intimate documentary "Sly" but that doesn't matter: Stallone has the wise eloquence of that cool uncle you'd listen to over and over
We know about Sly's rough debuts: the way he faced constant rejections before committing to writing, how his involvement in "Rocky" was the result of a series of "fortunate chains of mistakes", but there's something about that story that needs be heard, literally punched in the face of every 'wannabe' with the same fierceness than life. We need to know that Stallone's perseverance was guided by an obscure and divine faith on destiny, and that's not accidental, many stars had this presumptuous intuition about themselves, Van Damme thought so (maybe inspired by Sly?) and unless you don't believe in yourself, you have no call asking strangers to believe in you, it's as simple as that to grasp the audacious complexity of ambition. Only in the movies opportunities knock at your door but by Stallone's own admission: his movies were all about what couldn't happen in life, which was ironically contradicted by his own.
His life was almost more fascinating than his fictions, his tough childhood in New York Hell's Kitchen, brought up with his brother Frank in a dysfunctional family with a toxically competitive father who lead his boys with an iron first... Stallone had the childhood to make a child crave for escapism and like many baby boomers who didn't have TV, he found it in the theaters. And so despite his little 'slur' (a handicap inherited from birth) and his average looks, he convinced himself he could be the next "Hercules". And so he takes a shot, some Harvard guy tells him he's got something, he gets a few thug roles, starts in a 70s gem named "Lords of Flatbush" (endorsed by Tarantino) and one thing leading to another, we get to one of my favorite films ever. How a simple boxing story would become an emotional canvas where Stallone would put all his frustrations, regrets, hopes and dreams with the same balance... plus an extra special ingredient: a love story.
What I just love about the 'Rocky' story, one that even Tarantino admired, is the fact that it was a pure instance of destiny rewarding one's efforts: an opportunity Stallone didn't blow, and that should credit him as a writer. This is a man who got so hit by life that he could have grown into a cold-hearted cynical and be aligned with the whole rebellious and turbulent New Hollywood antiheroic mentality (check my review of "Rocky", my second ever review out of 2074) but Stallone understood that he needed to connect with the audience and not participate in that mood of disillusion that contaminated post-Vietnam America (an attitude that would serve him for Rambo). Stallone wanted to make people cheer, only borrowing the grittiness of "Mean Streets" for the texture, his Rocky would be a good guy, such a relatable dude that when he first knocked-out Apollo, everyone in the theater raised and cheered. That's the mark of popular recognition.
And that's how "Rocky", highest-grossing picture of the year, became the last with Stallone as an unknown; in a whim, he'd become a star, the third performer after Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin to be Oscar-nominated for both Acting and Writing, one year before the very Woody Allen he was assaulting in "Bananas", the thug beat the intellectual and both would take home the Best Picture Oscar. The merit of Stallone is not just to have written a hero in the tradition of those he used to admire with an authentic sincerity, but to have played him too, knowing that he had to embrace his own message and preserve his life from the bitterness of missing an opportunity, Stallone walked his talk... and the rest is history.
The documentary explores then Stallone's ups-and-downs, the deflation of his next-Brando reputation, a few flops and then his choice of writing and directing "Rocky II" with a story that could parallel his personal ordeals during "Rocky"'s aftermath; the sequels wouldn't just be a way to enrich a storyline but a personal catharsis. And then comes "Rambo" where we learn that he actually rewrote the whole story and projected a new image that would set a positive light on Vietnam vets. I should retract myself from my opening statement. That's certainly the greatest thing I've learned from the doc: "First Blood" owes a lot to Stallone's writing and his genuine capability to foresee the kind of image the people needed.
With Rambo and Rocky, Stallone embodied two different mentalities that say something about the American hero and two characters he could get back over and over and be guaranteed a success, not always on the same quality levels... but Stallone himself becomes a subject of idolization with fans scrutinizing his choices, same as his rival Arnold Schwarzenegger. While Arnie seemed to have carried on his 'tough guy' picture pretty well and made a successful transition to comedies, Sly always seemed conflicted between the idea of trying something more challenging and give the audience what it wants but after making successful but mediocre films and critically acclaimed flops, maturity aiding, he learned to move on... and stick to what he does best.
The documentary moves quite fluidly throughout a career that spans fifty years and allows Stallone to share his dreams and his regrets, the deepest one being family... there is sadness in Stallone's heart, echoed in his analogy of the passing train where every second of scenery is an episode of your life passing by... Stallone lived the dream, the disillusion and even the tragedy but through his own story, he could and can still inspire many people to capture once in a while the ephemeral but exhilarating beauty of the scenery.