Philadelphia Freedom: Discovering ‘Rocky,’ on Independence Day Forty Years Later
I grew up in Philly. Until this 4th of July weekend, I had never watched a single “Rocky” movie.
Growing up in Philly, I was indoctrinated. You must find a go-to cheesesteak place that is neither Geno’s nor Pat’s; you must yell something profane at a Mets fan in the parking lot after a Phillies game; you must love Rocky.
My family moved around a few times, but the neighborhood I remember most is called Olney. That’s where I played t-ball, my brother and I ate bugs for health reasons (protein) and one day my dad stepped straight through our back deck, which had been chewed through by carpenter bees. When I recently met someone who grew up in the same area he said, “Oh, you’re white trash Philly too?” Sure.
Eventually I found my cheesesteak spot (Cosmi’s) and witnessed a brawl outside of a Phillies game (and a Sixers game, but not an Eagles game because money doesn’t fucking grow on trees), but until this weekend, I had never seen a “Rocky” movie. Not one. And I love movies.
I knew the gist of it — I knew he boxed. And I knew that he trained by running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steps. I knew that Rocky yelled “Adrian!!!” I knew that a pudgy guy trained him. I thought that Adrian was the pudgy guy who trained him. It was a start.
A few days before Independence Day, I sent my brother — a boxer — a Facebook message.
“Have you ever seen Rocky? Like, the original. 1976.”
“Of course,” he replied.
Of course: I felt some shame. It felt a little like coming out. “I have something to tell you… I haven’t seen ‘Rocky.’ I haven’t witnessed perhaps the greatest pop culture duty/gift of being from Philadelphia.” Had I even seen the Liberty Bell? Had I ever even said “Yo” or “Youz guys”? Did I know what Independence means? It was a crisis of identity.
When the weekend rolled around, my brother and my dad agreed to help me lose my Rocky virginity by watching the original. 1976.
I hooked up my computer to our TV, dropped $3.99 on Amazon and pressed play.
The Watch: The opening theme kicked in with trumpets — “real trumpets!” my dad, a trumpet player, observed — and I danced around the living room, victoriously pumping my fists in the air. I was ready.
The movie is set in 1975. My dad, who was alive then, pointed out many, many times while watching, that it looks authentic — the faux wood paneling in Rocky’s apartment; metal ice cube trays; trash burning in the streets in the Italian market — there probably wasn’t too much set-design required. This was Philly in the 1970’s. My dad did admit, though, that he had never seen a group of guys doo-wopping around a burning barrel. It happens during the first few minutes of the movie and, shockingly, was an actual pastime and not an innuendo.
Speaking of innuendos, Italian Stallion. Heh.
Part way through the movie, one of my dad’s friends stopped by. We told him we were watching “Rocky.” “Awwww,” he growled, “Did you get to the part about the zoo yet?” He kept inexplicably grunting like Rocky had tapped some primal part of his being. “My brother memorized every line of this movie,” he told us, beaming.
Then, the training montage. It feels silly to admit that my eyes were misty watching Rocky leap up whole flights of the art museum steps in two bounds. I knew this part. I had done it myself dozens of times on elementary school field trips, or ironically in high school to mock the tourists. Training montages have been reduced to cliché, camp and parody, but personal progress, in this moment, was powerful: Victory doesn’t have to come from winning a boxing match against the greatest fighter in the world. It can mean running further than you could have before.
There’s something deeply patriotic about Rocky Balboa at the top of those steps: the music; the hazy skyline; the vacant city. Even the freeze-frame ending. Watching it, I started to cry.
“Rocky” is an underdog story. Before watching, I thought it was about a guy who worked his ass off and beat people up, but it’s actually about a dude who wants to finish the match, just to prove to himself that he’s not a bum. That’s not even subtext, it’s there in the script. This triggered how often I have to defend the city of Philadelphia itself. Between living in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, most people I meet know Philly as that place where people threw batteries at Santa. “You’re from Philly? You don’t seem mean,” I’ve been told as a backhanded compliment to myself and the entire city.
Philly is my city, and it’s not a bum. If it took me watching “Rocky” on the 4th of July weekend to realize why, so be it. It’s a place with history, culture and incredible food — desolate poverty and extreme wealth, just like most cities. But Philly is mine. If I have to be the guy who yells at clouds “It’s a great city, goddammit!” I’ll yell.
Philly may not win a lot on paper, except most hoagie grease. But 40-year-old spoiler: Rocky doesn’t win either. So when Philadelphia gets in the ring, its soft pretzel-clogged arteries vigorously pumping blood, it will keep on throwing punches and I’ll be the first one in its corner.