Many critics and movie fans alike enjoy playing a revisionist game, looking back on the Academy Awards of years past, debating which films were deservingly honored and which were not. Did Shakespeare In Love truly deserve top honors over Saving Private Ryan for 1998? What about Annie Hall capturing the ultimate prize over Star Wars for 1977?
Another year that remains hotly contested is 1976, when then-unknown Sylvester Stallone starred in Rocky. That movie won Best Picture over Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men (Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory was the oft-forgotten fifth nominee). No one can argue the cultural phenomenon that Rocky became, but many have suggested one of the more complex and topical films should have won.
I don’t place much importance on awards, even the Oscars, but arguing about them can make for a fun, lively discussion. And as much as I revere Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, I always come to the same conclusion: the Academy made the right choice. I think the years of sequels contributed to the original’s somewhat declining reputation. Rocky is a beautifully written, acted, and directed character study that makes nary a misstep. It is often referred to as one of the greatest sports movies of all time. But one its most enduring qualities is how it transcends the sports movie subgenre.
Rocky isn’t so much the story of an amateur boxer who wants to a prize fighter. It’s the story of a ne’er do well loser who yearns for respect. The movie works on many levels, primarily as an inspirational story but also as a genuine romance. Rocky Balboa isn’t the only one desperately in need of validation. Lonely, unloved Adrian (Talia Shire) wants more out of life than working in a pet shop. Her brother Paulie (Burt Young) is an alcoholic with a severe inferiority complex. Mickey (Burgess Meredith), a former journeyman boxer, now desires the chance to help a promising young fighter achieve what he never did.
Even though he hasn’t equaled the accomplishment in the thirty-five years since, Sylvester Stallone crafted a gem with his Oscar-nominated original screenplay. Rocky Balboa is a boxer, but Stallone wrote the character in such a universally relatable way that he could’ve been anything. He turned around three years later and essentially rewrote the movie as a story about winning, rather than simply being a competitor. During perhaps its defining scene, Rocky tells Adrian that all he wants is to “go the distance.” Stallone struck a chord with millions of people from different walks of life, all hoping to “go the distance” in their chosen endeavors. Rocky holds its power to inspire.
Rocky has been on Blu-ray several different times. It’s always the same passable transfer, repackaged in a slightly different case. Most recently, MGM has thrown the movie-only disc into a digibook package and attached an unreasonable suggested retail price. If all you want is the 1976 original, winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture, there are less expensive ways to get it. If you want all the sequels, a little bargain-shopping will get you the entire six-movie saga on Blu-ray for less than twice the cost of this new digibook Rocky edition.
In other words, this is a rip-off. Personally, I’m indifferent to the digibook package in general. I guess if I had to choose, I would just go with a standard case. If you are a true completist, then the hardcover Rocky digibook will have to be part of your collection. But for me, the value of flipping through a small, thin picture book is negligible. I would’ve rather had the Sylvester Stallone commentary, present on the most recent special edition DVD but MIA on all Blu-ray releases. I understand the studio’s need to double, triple, and quadruple-dip with their most popular titles. The least they could do is offer something that improves the actual viewing experience.
Rocky looks better on Blu-ray than it ever has in previous home video editions. The only time I’ve seen the original Rocky theatrically was several years ago during a one-night-only presentation. The 35mm print was in sterling quality, and I finally felt I had seen one of my favorite movies exactly as it was intended. The Blu-ray comes relatively close to what I remember of that screening, but I hope they eventually do a full restoration. Take, for example, one of Rocky’s 1976 Best Picture competitors, Taxi Driver. Even though I’ve upgraded that film over the years from VHS to laserdisc to DVD, the recent Blu-ray edition was a revelation. I would love for Rocky to receive similar treatment and really look as good as it possibly can.
As it is, the Blu-ray transfer provides a greater level of clarity than the standard DVD did. This is clearly evident during daylight exteriors, where there is an impressive level of textural detail on display. The movie has a very drab color scheme, but certain wardrobe items such as Adrian’s bright red overcoat really leap from the screen. Less effective are the interiors and night scenes, where there is a concerning lack of fine detail. Black crush becomes an issue during these segments as well.
The original mono mix has been expanded to DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. No one would expect a low-budget 1976 movie to provide demo-quality audio, but all things considered this isn’t a great audio experience. Having heard this movie in a theatrical setting as well as in all the major home video formats, the bottom line is: this isn’t a great-sounding movie. Dialogue, especially when Paulie starts yelling maniacally, is occasionally marred by distortion. Words seem to be swallowed up in the mix at times, making them difficult to understand. The iconic Bill Conti score has always sounded a little tinny and overly compressed. The expansion of the original, very modest sound design for the modern home theater has only exasperated these issues. Rocky’s original mono soundtrack is preferable.
If all you want is the original movie, there are cheaper Blu-ray alternatives to this higher priced digibook release. Even though the five sequels are of varying quality, the series is so addictive I would recommend shelling out a few extra bucks for all of them. The reasonably priced Rocky: The Undisputed Collection which gathers all six Rocky movies in one reasonably priced Blu-ray set.