(USA, 95 min.)
Dir. Thom Zimny
Programme: Galas – Closing Night (World Premiere)
Thom Zimny has made a career as a documentarian by following the mythmaking of several musicians, most notably his long-time collaboration with Bruce Springsteen in films like Western Stars and Letter to You. The director is no stranger to going beyond the superficial while providing an accessible narrative to hook both general audiences and casual fans alike. With his current project premiering at TIFF, he focusses his lens on Sylvester Stallone, the Oscar-nominated actor behind some of the more iconic roles in cinema history. The icon has a lot to unpack to truly understand the man and his motivations.
Sly begins with Stallone looking outward towards camera, his face framed with multiple panes of windows, a series of photos scattered on the wall behind him. He’s leaving his mansion, and movers carefully pack statues and other objets d’art throughout the massive space. It’s telling, perhaps, that just about every painting and sculpture is of Stallone himself. The mansion is a museum of sorts to the man’s physique in his prime, biceps that helped fuel billions at the box office thanks to his two most famous roles, the hapless yet hopeful boxer Rocky, and the tumultuous and tortured war vet Rambo.
Stallone himself recognizes these two contradictory characters are the poles of his own personality. Zimny shows see how Stallone’s own violent childhood with a driven, jealous father remains a significant contributing factor to how Sly navigates the world. We hear tales of early childhood and Stallone rekindles old stories about those magical three days when a boxing drama was scribbled down by an actor creating a role that he knew would make or break his career. Sly rides the rise and fall of a Hollywood legend in ways expected in films such as these.
What elevates Sly, both man and film, is the acute self-awareness. Zimny encourages one fascinating conceit, the actor listening back to cassettes of interviews done as a younger man. The contemporary Stallone yells in both frustration and encouragement at his former self, providing a dialogue between past and present that’s exceptional.
Similarly, Stallone isn’t afraid to tackle some of the flops and foibles, even if some of his more muted triumphs like Cop Land are too quickly dismissed, or how fine takes in films like Nighthawks are entirely overlooked, while the recent Creed films are omitted altogether (curious given the return of an iconic character in a performance that won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination), to focus on risible ridiculousness like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. There are many surprises for viewers who are only aware of the giant successes, from the seriousness with which Stallone takes his writing, to the experience he had as a polo player, yet another arena with which father and son would have conflict. On the other hand, the tragic and sudden death of Stallone’s son Sage is noted randomly with an ‘in memoriam’-style intertitle, yet never discussed amid Stallone’s many accounts of fathers and sons.
It would be far too easy to fall into simply psychologizing of the bruised child trying to please the aggressively hostile father. Whether you wish to look at the literal rise from Hades for a boy from Hell’s Kitchen in Orphean terms, or to focus on other myths where a father is humbled or humiliated by the success of his son, it’s clear that this profile is not some simple by-the-numbers recounting of Stallone’s achievements to superficially sate those wanting a warm remembrance.
Colleagues such as Henry Winkler, Arnold Schwarzenegger, critic Wesley Morris, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and sibling/singer Frank Stallone, Jr. provide welcome additional context that never devolves into hagiography. It’s through them that we get a whole picture of the man, from the highs to the lows, in ways that don’t feel like a final culmination, but instead a recognition that at the least Stallone is onto the final act of his remarkable run.
As the stories get told, clips from his hits and misses are shown, and while Stallone becomes increasingly introspective, we see the elements of his home being carted away, the various icons being wrapped up in colourless paper, boxed and ready to either be taken elsewhere, or forgotten in some storage location. Each of these stories feels like those elements being carted out – all about Sly, sometimes to excess. Some are kitschy, some more elegant, some are over-the-top, some more subtle, and some downright classical in construction. This is perfect for a man packing up his memories, but also perfect to encapsulate the contradictions while demonstrating the incredible financial success he achieved over decades in the industry.
In short, Zimny’s film does justice to his subject, and his subject does the heavy work of being both present and open in his recollections. There’s an immediate charm and charisma to the man, one so easily pigeonholed as thug or dumb lug, an intense intellect behind that famous physique. For being one of the most famous men in the world, there’s still much many will learn about Stallone from this film, above all, his cleverness honed through a need to survive the obstacles that he overcame. Fitting, then, that someone with a name that means cunning, a sly way of coming to terms with a character as rich as Stallone is the greatest success of Sly.