As Sylvester Stallone’s director’s cut of ‘Rocky IV’ nears its cinema release, Luke G Williams pays a personal tribute to a film that holds a special place in his heart…
“Memories of childhood were the dreams that stayed with you after you woke.” – Julian Barnes
‘Rocky IV’ is such an immoveable, beloved totem of my childhood that my view of it is inevitably coloured by the warm fog of reminiscence.
Film critics – those heartless, joyless, soulless beasts – have always sneered at and renounced ‘Rocky IV’ as nationalistic, cartoonish tripe.
I could never do so.
To renounce ‘Rocky IV’, would be to renounce my own childhood self, and betray that nervous ginger-haired child who saw in Stallone, Weathers and Lundgren a glimpse of a mighty world of triumph, valour and ring warriorship.
I first watched ‘Rocky IV’ in January 1986 at the now demolished single-screen Coronet cinema at the Elephant and Castle, opposite the three-screen ABC. I was nine and a bit years old and, if memory serves, it was the film’s first night of release, perhaps not in the UK, but certainly at that particular cinema.
I was with my dad – now long gone – and my best friend from primary school and, such was the excitement that the release of the film had engendered in south London, that the queue for tickets stretched far out of the lobby and snaked a fair way down the New Kent Road.
Huddled together in the cold, we feared that there may be no seats left when we finally reached the ticket desk, but thankfully the capacity of the cinema was huge and we did indeed get in, although the start time of the film had to be delayed, such was the multitude of fans in attendance.
It wasn’t my first trip to the cinema by any means, but from the moment we crossed the threshold into the auditorium there was something different about this particular cinema-going experience – something which I had never before experienced and never would experience again.
Quite simply, there was electricity in the air that night. Crackling electricity that was so palpable it created a mood that bordered on hysteria. The audience were so wholeheartedly involved and invested in the experience of the narrative that unfolded in front of them that every moment seemed raw and real.
Whether Rocky would prevail against mighty Soviet Ivan Drago seemed in genuine doubt. And our collective fear that Rocky might lose was such that we gripped the cigarette ash stained seats in that crumbing cinema for dear life.
It remains the most exhilarating cinematic or sporting experience of my life.
The atmosphere built slowly but inexorably – a tidal wave of emotion that eventually subsumed us all. The opening recap of Rocky’s victory against Clubber Lang from ‘Rocky III’ that began the film drew cheers of recognition while Apollo Creed’s funeral elicited widespread tears – indeed a woman in the row in front of me sobbed so uncontrollably that her daughter had to escort her out of the auditorium to compose herself.
By the time of Rocky’s climactic contest against Ivan Drago everyone in the cinema was on their feet chanting “RO-CKY! RO-CKY”. Children gripped each other or their parents for emotional support and many of these parents were chain smoking furiously. The stench of tobacco, sweat and Butterkist was all pervading.
When the Italian Stallion finally knocked out the dastardly Russian there was bedlam – cheers of delight, stamping of feet, whooping and hollering. People ran up and down the aisles with delight.
And people who had never met each other before and never would meet again openly embraced with delight.
Over the years I have met many people who shared similar experiences of watching ‘Rocky IV’ in the cinema.
It’s always Rocky IV. And they always describe people standing, cheering, hugging.
I’ve seen every Rocky and Creed film since at the cinema and the atmosphere has never approached the quasi-religious fervour of that heady night at an Elephant and Castle flea pit that was long ago razed to the ground.
I had watched and enjoyed boxing before I watched ‘Rocky IV’, but it was Stallone’s magnum opus that solidified my love of the sport.
The following weekend I raided my piggy bank and invested in the LP of the soundtrack. I was so young and naïve that when I put the record on my mum and dad’s already ancient record player I expected to hear the full audio soundtrack of the film – like a radio play.
I was slightly disappointed that it was merely the songs from the film, but I soon got over my disappointment, bought a skipping rope and began ‘training’ in my living room to the strains of Vince DiCola’s ‘Training Montage’ and Survivor’s ‘Burning Heart’.
These memories have stayed with me.
And every once in a while they bubble to the surface again, reminding me of what it was like to be young, and all that I have gained and lost since.
‘No Easy Way Out’ by Robert Tepper became a beloved staple of myself and my friends on drunken nights out in our 20s and 30s when we would beg DJs to play it and they never knew what we were talking about.
Once – at a pub in Waterloo – we hijacked the DJ booth while he was on a toilet break and played it ourselves through an iPod, provoking widespread bemusement and dirty looks, but we didn’t care.
When Carl Froch adopted ‘No Easy Way Out’ for some of his ringwalks he instantly rose in my estimation, and a clause in a sealed envelope regarding my funeral arrangements for when I pass on specifies that this is the tune I wish my coffin to leave the church to.
Now in my 40s I still shove ‘Rocky IV’ into my DVD player more often than is healthy, and my LP of the soundtrack is still in my possession along with the novelisation of the film which I bought at Leeds railway station.
And when ‘Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago’ – Stallone’s new ‘director’s cut’ of the film – is released next week I’ll be first in line – hoping and praying for the cinema to be engulfed in hysteria and youthful mayhem, although of course it won’t be.
That special night has gone, never to be repeated, although I’ll never stop trying.