Everybody loves a good underdog story and few underdog stories continue to exert the kind of cultural influence enjoyed by Rocky (1976).
Directed by John G. Avildsen (who also made The Karate Kid, the other iconic underdog story of the 80s), Sylvester Stallone’s boxing film, where he plays Italian-American fighter Rocky Balboa, has won the hearts of countless fans across the globe.
An excellent new podcast, Paul Farber’s The Statue (the first episode now available on Apple Podcasts and the NPR website), explores the enduring popularity of the movie, centred around one artefact — the titular Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This 10-foot bronze statue draws an estimated four million visitors every year, over twice the annual footfall at the symbolic Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, for instance. The pose struck by Stallone in this statue is of Rocky Balboa holding his arms aloft in triumph, the culmination of one of the film’s defining sequences — the training montage of Rocky Balboa in the morning, as he runs up the 72 steps that lead to the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Farber, director of Monument Labs, and the writer-narrator of this podcast, has studied monuments and their cultural/ historical significance his whole life. He uses that experience, as well as an impressively diverse range of interviews with fans and experts alike, to paint a holistic picture of the craze around this statue.
A symbol of hope
How does a monument become a living, breathing, constantly abuzz part of a community? Where exactly does pop culture insinuate itself into hyperlocal cultures, and what do these moments of ‘convergence’ tell us about ourselves? These are some of the questions explored in the first episode, which dropped on January 10.
Farber begins the podcast on an atypical note: by interviewing his mother, the person who changed his “huffy and snobby” opinion about the statue. Growing up in Philadelphia as a queer, Jewish boy, Farber soon learned that Rocky Balboa isn’t simply a fictional character for the locals who love the statue and visit it frequently. He is a symbol of hope and resilience, and with the times getting tougher, Rocky Balboa becomes more and more relevant. It helps, of course, that the boxing ring is a super-convenient metaphor for people from all walks of life to project their hopes and insecurities on to.
One of the great things about The Statue is that it maintains a balance between the journalistic and the philosophical. A good example of this is the story of Haseeb Payab in Episode 1. An Afghan man who fled the Taliban regime along with his family, Payab eventually ends up in Philadelphia, where he visits the Rocky statue, of course. As Payab says, the moment he comes face-to-face with the statue for the first time marks an important stage of ‘reset’ in his life.
The art debate
Similarly, when Farber takes us on a crash course through the history of the statue, we learn that the museum initially wanted the Rocky statue outside its premises, along with other athletic statues. Basically, they did not see the statue as art; it was a symbol of the commercialised, hyper-consumerist ‘art’ of Hollywood — looked down upon in the rarefied world of curators and art historians, which saw the statue as “movie prop”. In these moments, The Statue juggles several weighty themes: publicly funded art, the role of artists in society, and the give-and-take of cinema and culture.
The second episode dives into Stallone’s stardom: the man, the cinema and yes, the artist. The actor has also been painting for decades, as he revealed a few years ago, and his paintings (of his own most famous characters, of Joan Crawford, and a bunch of other things in various stages of abstraction) have been exhibited in the U.S. and parts of Europe.
On the evidence of the first two episodes, this promises to be another intriguing, interdisciplinary narrative full of surprising segues. The Statue is highly recommended for everybody, really, but especially so for movie buffs.
(The monthly column will explore talking points from movies, OTT and podcasts.)
The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.