On Saturday 7th September, I embarked on a sacred pilgrimage to Birmingham to see my hero Sylvester Stallone speak at an exclusive, black-tie event. It was incredible.
It only took one Valium, a minor breakdown (in the morning before we departed) and chanting positive mantras in the taxi on the way to the ICC for me to get there, but I did it. The evening was an astounding victory for me, considering previous months have been a struggle against mental health battles (including a lingering sense of agoraphobia), and will be remembered as a significant milestone in my life.
For those of you unfamiliar with ‘An Experience With’, it’s a series of live opportunities to see movie/sports/music titans across venues in the UK. Our evening consisted of a live band (playing jazz classics), a sophisticated three-course meal (I felt like I was eating food prepared on My Kitchen Rules) , an auction on various Stallone memorabilia (including signed boxing gloves which sold for more than 4K) and finally, a live conversation with Stallone himself (including some Q+A with a few lucky audience members).
The countdown to Stallone’s arrival on stage was really rousing, enough so that it brought me back from a minor post-dessert fatigue. We’d all gotten so distracted by the wine and food yet the explosive montage served as a dramatic reminder: the real, actual Sylvester Stallone was going to be blessing us with his presence. My stomach was dancing by this point!
The lights dimmed and splices of quintessential Stallone movies played with the tunes we were all so familiar with, pounding in the background (Hearts on Fire, Eye of The Tiger, No Easy Way Out etc.) and at certain points, with more exposed clips such as dialogue between Adrian and Rocky, a live pianist played parts of Conti’s original score from the Rocky franchise. I wept but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who ended up feeling emotional- when I looked around, so many strangers seemed to be excitable and overwhelmed. It dawned on me that there were people of all ages, including some children who looked to be as young as 10 in the audience. That made it even more powerful, recognising that this legend has impacted so many generations with a lifetime of writing, directing, acting and status as a prodigal athlete.
For me, Stallone has been a massive inspiration since childhood. I was obsessed with the Rocky saga but I also watched other titles such as ‘Rambo’, ‘Cliffhanger’, ‘Tango & Cash’ and ‘Stop! Or My Momma Will Shoot!’ repeatedly. I’m not sure what initially drew me in to Stallone but I’m assuming it stemmed from my dad’s encouragement, as he’s notorious for reciting Balboa wisdom at any possible opportunity. I do remember being in awe of Stallone’s physicality- the montages in the Rocky films made me see the body as a very capable machine when disciplined correctly and I think as a kid, that really struck me in a positive way. I also liked the way Balboa responded to failure more than success, the way he picked himself up and carried on because he was passionate to prevail.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself annually re-watching the Rocky series (with the exception of Rocky 5, we don’t talk about that…) as a weird sort of pastime. It’s clichéd, it’s dated and it’s definitely a polarising conversation topic when none of your housemates have watched the films and insist they never will. However, Rocky has gotten me through some horrendous Uni deadlines, a series of life setbacks and also some hardcore workouts (any good Rocky fan will know that the soundtrack is notorious for spurring you on). What I’m struck by is the fact that no matter how many times I experience the films, the impact is always profound and I usually find myself inspired to crack on with whatever projects I’m working on.
I think Stallone’s most alluring attribute is his affinity for the underdog, being one himself. Undoubtedly, the success of the Rocky franchise stems from the fact that the titular character is an Average Joe and has to struggle, as the rest of us do, in his quest for success. Apart from the casual namedropping of close friends such as Franco Columbo, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren, Stallone seemed incredibly self-effacing. Honestly, all expectations I had when preparing to see the Italian Stallion in the flesh were not only met but exceeded; he was humble, comedic, down-to-earth and seemed to emanate sheer positivity with his life philosophies.
When the pyrotechnics took over the stage and Stallone emerged to a live rendition of Gonna Fly Now, the atmosphere was ecstatic. Stallone casually walked back and forth across the stage, swung around on his bar stool, played around with the positioning of the rotating fan (which seemed to be pointed directly at him) and addressed the audience as if we were dining in Adrian’s restaurant, being spoken to personally by Stallone at our table.
Stallone told a number of unbelievable anecdotes including one that he claimed never to have told before- it included training with Columbo, the presence of an ominous looking one-legged barn owl and Stallone’s pectoral muscle tearing away completely from bone. Stallone also mentioned the animosity between himself and Schwarzenegger at the start of their careers as rival action heroes. Despite their initial competitive friction, the two have gone on to become very close friends. Stallone also noted that his distinct drawl and Schwarzenegger’s strong accent make for a good team- if they started their own language school, they could teach students how not to speak!
Perhaps the main story Stallone told was of writing the first Rocky film in a matter of days, based upon the painting he’d created of the titular character. Living in a dilapidated apartment next to his brother Frank, Sylvester’s start in the Hollywood industry was far from easy. He was a self-professed penniless, ADHD and dyslexia-ridden writer who had to persuade Hollywood bigwigs to take him on for the lead role in his own movie. It was through sheer persistence and sacrifice that he found himself able to persuade producers and since then, he’s simply kept himself busy working on projects that fulfil his thirst for adrenaline and mental/physical challenges.
Stallone reiterated that failures contribute more to our learning and development than being successful at every venture the first time. I think this really resonated with me on the night because of the fact I have been feeling like I’ve failed myself over the last few months. Suddenly, seeing this behemoth 73 year old on the stage, still so passionate about film and narratives with purpose, it all sort of clicked into place for me. It’s just like Rocky Balboa, when Balboa gives his son the ultimate life lesson:
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
I walked into the ICC trembling with nerves and general social anxiety. I walked out feeling absolutely victorious and didn’t trip in heels, not even once! Something stirred within me during the event and I found myself motivated to return to Bradford and to press play after a summer of my life being paused. I think being afraid of not being good enough has immobilised me for the majority of my life and it took a direct experience with Stallone for me to recognise how ridiculous this is. I’m 25 this year and my life is just beginning! If Stallone once started off as a skinny guy with a dog and a cockroach-infested apartment, I’m pretty sure that there’s hope for all of us. And hope is enough.
In summary, Stallone was a delight but seeing my hero on stage was a particularly special experience because I was sat alongside my family, drinking wine and watching their teeth glow in the dark as they smiled at Stallone’s crazy life stories/pearls of wisdom. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity and for my amazing uncle who spontaneously bought tickets for us to attend, it was truly a privilege to be sat there with everyone including my dashing cousin (who outgrew me at the age of about 14, what the hell?). It was a truly magical night and I would thoroughly recommend the ‘An Experience With’ events to all. Additionally, if you haven’t seen any Stallone films, watch the Rocky franchise (except for Rocky 5 and including the Creed titles). You can thank me later.
Thanks for reading!