When you are making a documentary out of the life of someone as magnanimous as Sylvester Sly Stallone, bringing an X-factor to the table is a must. Given that it is coming from the house of Netflix, which has set pretty much a gold standard when it comes to the documentary genre, the audience would expect it to be nothing short of exceptional. Only a few weeks ago, the brilliant David Beckham documentary showed how to do it. Unfortunately, the Stallone documentary couldn’t quite achieve the greatness that it was supposed to. Let us take a closer look into both the “what” and “why” of Sly.
Childhood Was Not Too Kind
Life wasn’t easy for Sly (that’s what we’re calling him, as he insists on) and his brother Frank. The blame for that goes to no one but their parents, who didn’t have an easy marriage. And not only did they fail to protect the kids from the trauma of that, but they also made Sly and Frank a part of it. When their parents finally separated, Sly ended up with the father in Maryland, and Frank settled with the mother in Philadelphia. That was difficult for the brothers, as told by both in the documentary, who always shared a strong bond between them. In Maryland, Sly discovered his love for horses and the game of polo, but his abusive father played a spoilsport in that as well. It was only a matter of time before Sly broke out of his father’s house and ended up in New York with the dream of becoming an actor.
The acting dream mainly happened due to the 1958 film adaptation of Hercules, where the leading man’s flawless physique inspired Sly to find the way. He immediately knew the kind of thing he wanted to become on screen. Not that it happened overnight. The acting career of the future superstar actually had a modest start with the play Death of a Salesman, where he got noticed by people. But Hollywood wouldn’t cast him in lead roles as Sly looked much different from the leading men of that era. Realizing he had to find his own way, Sly took the mantle of writing screenplays on his own while working at a movie theater. A meeting and subsequent friendship with actor, director, and screenwriter John Herzfeld, who was also trying to make it big at the same time, set the course of Sly’s upcoming future. The first taste of success came for Sly with the 1974 drama, The Lords of Flatbush, which also formed another of his longtime friendships with actor Henry Winkler, who couldn’t be more different from Sly.
‘Rocky’ And Instant Stardom
Sly’s career did take off with The Lords of Flatbush, but it was Rocky that changed the course of his life. The 1976 boxing film, which gave birth to a super-successful franchise is still going strong; was the kind of thing an actor could only dream of. Possibly the greatest underdog story ever told, where the underdog actually lost in the end but still managed to win the hearts of millions; Rocky turned Sly’s life upside down and dropped him into the world of glitz and glamour. Everyone now wanted a piece of this new guy. Some of them couldn’t believe he was the same guy from Flatbush…, as told by none other than Quentin Tarantino.
A Slew Of Failures Until Redemption With ‘Rambo’
With great power comes great responsibility. The pressure of delivering a worthy follow-up to Rocky was always a difficult job. But Sly completely messed it up with F.I.S.T., the neo-noir crime film where he played something completely different from Rocky Balboa. Things got further worse with his directorial debut Paradise Ally, another boxing film, but of a very different kind compared to Rocky. With his career at stake, Sly did what anyone would in such situations—going back to the character that gave him everything. That worked out for him, as the second Rocky film (this time directed by the man himself) was warmly received by the audience as well. Sly was back in the business again. Four years later, he came up with the third Rocky film, which also yielded gold at the box office.
But Sly needed another character to prove he was worthy of everything. That’s how Rambo came along. Rewriting the course of the military action film genre, Rambo: First Blood (1982) proved to be a huge success, and after that, Sly never really had to look back.
‘The Expendables’ And The Rest
Sly is probably the only person to create not one or two but three successful franchises. The final one came with The Expendables, the 2010 action film where Sly managed to bring in other action superstars like Jason Statham and Jet Li. Subsequently, people like Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford also joined the franchise in later movies. Although not particularly well received by critics, The Expendables franchise remained a huge financial success and is still going strong, given that the fourth one was released only a few months ago.
In the Netflix’s documentary, Sylvester expresses the importance of family in his life. The documentary evidently ends on the same note, as the man keeps talking about family values and the importance of having people to whom you get to come back home. That is admirable, but the issue here is that we don’t really get to feel anything for him or his family. A good documentary is supposed to make the audience part of its story by drawing them inside it. Watching Sly mostly feels like sitting at a window and watching things happening outside. And there isn’t anything that seems groundbreaking or earth-shattering either. Don’t get me wrong, I have my utmost respect for Stallone, who managed to overcome a harsh childhood. That is indeed an inspirational story, and a lot of his life struggles can actually be seen in the kind of films he has made.
But we are talking about the Thom Zimmy-directed documentary here, which is supposed to depict the life story of the man and make us feel for him. That’s where it falls short, as thanks to the lackluster writing and straightforward structure, the documentary doesn’t get close to the greatness it aims for. Even a mere Ninety mintutes of runtime seems rather tedious to get through, especially in the final act. Despite Stallone himself narrating it, along with his brother Frank, friends John Herzfeld and Henry Winkler, and someone like Quentin Tarantino, Sly feels drab and gimmicky, which is unfortunate. I should add that the presence of Tarantino does bring some zing to the whole thing nonetheless.
Should you watch Sly? Well, that depends. If you are a diehard fan of the man himself, then you probably owe it to yourself to know this story. Otherwise, a rerun of the Rocky and Rambo films would be a better choice.