An American icon; creator of an inspiring story that would go on to touch millions; and centerpiece of three iconic franchises: the one and only Sylvester Stallone has a legacy that speaks for itself. Whether or not one has seen his legendary 80s hits or his frenetic modern actioners, the imagery of Rocky and Rambo have been so steeped in Americana that they became permanent fixtures. Stallone himself, one of the greatest rags-to-riches success stories in Hollywood, both lovingly and somberly reflects on his life and filmography in Thom Zimny’s new Netflix documentary, aptly titled Sly. Sly skims the surface of Stallone’s psyche for a nostalgic (if slight) trip down memory lane that should especially appeal to fans of the Rocky franchise.
The framing device of Sly finds us checking in periodically with the acclaimed actor as he packs up his massive home and extensive memorabilia collection for greener pastures. In rifling through his various personal items, Stallone, at age seventy-seven, reminisces. Speaking eloquently about a wide range of topics surrounding both his personal and professional lives, Stallone’s stories are interspersed with the occasional chiming in of greats like Quentin Tarantino and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Make no mistake though: this is Sylvester Stallone’s story, told through the lens of his own genuine experience.
As someone who has only seen a handful of the Rocky and Rambo movies, I was still captivated by Stallone’s recollections. His journey is almost the epitome of what the American dream means. Born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City in 1946 to absentee parents, Stallone and his brother seem to have spent more time in the care of a boarding house than his own parents. Untold hours were spent transported away from his own experiences through the magic of the cinema. The rocky (no pun intended) relationship shared with their father seems to have permanently traumatized both brothers; one story that Stallone shares about how his father bullied him into despising polo is tragic indeed. Stallone eventually became what he became because there was no alternative.
No one else was doing it like he could. When he started as an extra, Stallone was always cast as a thug or some random tertiary character that was barely seen, or a prop man. Turning to writing to create the roles for himself that he wasn’t being offered ended up being the smartest choice he could have made. After being cast in Lords of Flatbush with Henry Winkler, Stallone was constantly rewriting his scenes of the script and making them better. This was someone so in tune with his acting capabilities and what made the most sense for his character that everyone around him had no choice but to trust his greater instincts.
Obviously, Stallone’s instincts would later pay off to grand effect. In selling his Rocky script, Stallone refused to back down as the film’s lead star no matter how much money they offered to throw his way. This was the role he was born to play. Ironically, after Rocky’s first screenings, Stallone was convinced it would end up a flop. Instead, it became a cultural theatre event and touchstone phenomenon. Accolades flooded in, and a franchise was born not long after. Stallone’s struggles with not repeating himself over and over again are interesting indeed when one considers just how wildly varied his film career has been thus far.
My biggest issue with Sly is its ninety-five-minute runtime. For an actor this seasoned, we needed more time to dive deep into more angles. So many elements visited feel entirely surface-level simply because they happen so quickly. Longtime collaborator John Herfzeld seems important, yet the documentary never even stops to tell us how they met. Rocky V, the sole movie he co-starred in with his son, Sage, is given quite a bit more depth than much else. And yet, Sage’s abrupt death in 2012 barely feels like a footnote, and certainly is never spoken about in Stallone’s own words. Perhaps it felt too difficult to reopen the wounds of his past, but when that’s the selling point of the whole documentary in the first place, how can we not be just the slightest bit frustrated?
Ultimately, Sly aims to portray an intimate, flawed portrait of subject Sylvester Stallone—on some level, it succeeds, even if it feels a little empty in the end. I would have much rather had a miniseries or a much longer film to go as in-depth as possible with Stallone about more of his life. The missing of time and regrets, especially when it comes to family, presents as a footnote to the movie rather than a central focus. Nevertheless, Sly will be especially informative for those with only tertiary knowledge about Stallone and his accolades. One thing is for certain: Stallone doesn’t like sad endings, so don’t be too sad for him. Blast the inspirational score from Rocky instead.
Explore the true story of Sly when the film premieres exclusively to Netflix on Friday, November 3rd.