Thom Zimny found himself in a dual role when directing a documentary about the cinema icon Sylvester Stallone: he was both the seasoned filmmaker crafting a universal narrative of self-discovery and the former teenager who was ecstatic to watch “Rocky” for the very first time.
While creating Netflix’s “Sly” (available for streaming on Nov. 3), Zimny fondly remembers the moments when he invited Stallone into his editing room to delve into the images and clips from Stallone’s life during their numerous interviews. At times, Zimny would step back and allow his inner 16-year-old to marvel at the moments and the essence of Sly.
The documentary, which premiered at the closing of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, chronicles Stallone’s remarkable 77-year life and his enduring career. Stallone breathed life into legendary characters like the underdog boxer Rocky Balboa and the Vietnam veteran John Rambo. He discovered his artistic voice through screenwriting and faced numerous hardships and obstacles in pursuit of his creative dreams. As Stallone himself states in the film: “Don’t sit there and try to do Shakespeare when you look like me.” Stallone’s journey isn’t merely about chasing fame; it’s about seeking a deeper understanding of who he is in the world and the challenges he encountered along the way. Zimny, who has previously directed documentaries on Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley, shares, “I’ve loved all of Stallone’s films since childhood, but during the making of this documentary, I realized I was uncovering a side of the man that had never been seen before.”
Zimny goes on to discuss some of the most intriguing revelations in “Sly.”
1. Sylvester Stallone’s Astounding Memorabilia Collection
“Sly” unveils the actor/filmmaker preparing for a move, which involves packing up an enormous collection of memorabilia in his home. This collection includes old scripts, action figures, sculptures, and paintings related to Rocky and Rambo, among other Stallone-related items. Zimny highlights the significance of this as a plot point, using the act of moving as a symbol of transition and change. He also emphasizes how Stallone’s office itself becomes a character in the film. Zimny says, “These items of memorabilia or memory, of objects that were used in the movies, these are part of my storytelling devices.” He draws from his work with Bruce Springsteen to convey how certain objects hold deep meaning and significance.
2. The Origin of Rocky
Stallone became a household name with the release of the original “Rocky” in 1976. In “Sly,” Stallone delves into the creation of that film and its subsequent chapters, explaining how they reflected his desires and struggles at the time. For instance, Rocky grappled with increased responsibility in “Rocky II” and the need to trust his instincts in “Rocky III.” However, producing the first film was a Herculean task, as Stallone fought tirelessly to secure the title role, even amidst last-minute casting changes. The documentary showcases Stallone’s visit to the New York City movie theater where he once worked as an usher, and which also hosted the premiere of “Rocky.” Zimny describes a poignant photograph of Stallone standing outside the theater before he achieved fame, capturing the last moments of his life before it changed forever. Like Rocky, Stallone is portrayed as a person who refused to back down and constantly pushed himself—a truly inspiring journey.
3. Crafting Characters and Offering Hope
Stallone admits in “Sly” that he deals in “the hope business,” emphasizing the importance of offering hope through the personas of Rocky and John Rambo. These characters also mirror aspects of Stallone’s father, Frank, a World War II veteran who imparted a fierce determination to his son. The documentary delves into their complex relationship, from Stallone’s relentless quest for his father’s love to reconciling with him on his deathbed. Zimny highlights Stallone’s emotional portrayal of his father, conveying both the love and the challenging moments they experienced together. Moreover, Stallone’s revelation that his father was the real-life inspiration for Rambo adds depth to his identity as a filmmaker.
In summary, “Sly” is not just a documentary about a Hollywood legend but a profound exploration of Sylvester Stallone’s personal journey, his creative process, and the enduring impact of iconic characters like Rocky and Rambo on both his life and the world of cinema.