An hour or so into Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, the washed-up brawler decides it’s his destiny to strap on the gloves one more time. Bill Conti’s theme music kicks in, and Rocky hits the floor for a set of one-armed push-ups, then lifts some heavy-looking metal chains and beats the crap out of a side of beef. It’s an inspirational, back-to-basics training montage—one of Stallone’s finest in 30 years. (You can see a few excerpts in this trailer.)
It’s no accident that the Rocky Balboa training montage cribs shamelessly from the original Rocky. The 1976 film’s low-budget aesthetic and understated storytelling exemplify what the franchise had strayed from in its godforsaken Rocky V-spawning years. It’s only natural, then, that Stallone would signal his intention to slough off the series’ overindulgences by aping Rocky’s most celebrated scene. When our hero charges up the snow-covered art museum steps in Rocky Balboa, it’s a signal that the champ’s finally got his legs back.
There are 11 montage sequences in the first five Rocky films—and that doesn’t even include the what-happened-in-the-previous-movie recaps that kick off the series’ second, third, fourth, and fifth installments. These music-backed visual medleys presaged the rise of MTV and incited a montage craze in American cinema that has yet to abate.
Rocky, though, will forever be champion of the genre. Close readings of the series’ montage sequences reveal countless details that are essential to understanding the silver screen’s archetypal underdog hero. The Rocky montages also shine a light on the evolution of the series’ aesthetics, the shifting sensibilities of American popular culture, and the geopolitical climate of the 1980s.
Click here for a video slide show on the secrets of the Rocky montage.