Not too long ago, I was drowning in a pretty sour creative funk. Unable to rally, I spent the better part of an hour clicking stupidly through links of baking fails and photo galleries of baby animals in party dresses (actual thing), realizing there is an emotional equivalent of hoovering a bag of Sour Cream and Onion Funions followed by an Oreo sleeve chaser. Not ideal. I was going to shut the laptop and manufacture a headache so I could curl up on the couch and binge something “light” like Sopranos reruns when I found myself thinking, “this is the part of the movie where the montage kicks in and we see the main character get her groove on. If only I had one of those now.” As a child of the 80s, I grew up watching countless films replicate one of the greatest, most famous training/transformation montage sequences in the American movie cannon: Rocky.
The bright, strident opening notes of Bill Conti’s iconic anthem, “Gonna Fly Now” evokes a nearly Pavlovian response to get up on your feet and throw some air punches, or real punches if you happen to be in a bar in Southie at noon on any given Tuesday. The music alone—pumped into rallies, high school and professional sports auditoriums, political events, and in the bedrooms and bathrooms of hopeful pre-prom teenagers of a certain generation–is an electrical current that rips through your body, taunting your pulse not to race higher. It’s aural crack and I thought, well, it hasn’t become a staple of rah-rah-feel-good-get-your-ass-in-gear pop culture for the last forty years for nothing. A lot of writers will admit that when we feel like the floor of a movie theater, creatively speaking, there is very little voodoo we won’t try to scrape ourselves off of said floor and get back to being a mostly productive, functioning human.
I hadn’t seen the entire Rocky movie in ages, but really, if you watch any of them—1 through (checks notes) 983–the training montages start to bleed together. Rocky running in the streets, in the snow, in the dark, in the dark, snowy streets; Rocky doing one-armed push-ups in the gym, in the snow, in the dark of a dark root cellar; Rocky sweating in close-up, a lot, even in the dark. But the original Rocky was the first and set the tone for all the other running and sweating that came after. It is THE SOURCE and as such, has become condensed in our collective memories to that final sequence of Rocky triumphantly bounding up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Side note: If you’ve ever visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you know it’s almost impossible to behave like a normal person walking up the stairs to the top. You are most certainly compelled to jog up those last four or five stairs, raise your arms above your head, and jump around yowling, “Adriannnnnnn!” without a hint of self-consciousness. It’s practically the law in that damn city, look it up.
You have to absorb the entire three-minute segment to leech its maximum juju and inspiration. The milky, winter sun rises over the train yard as Rocky begins his morning run. He’s outfitted in schlubby, depressing, prison-issued grey sweatshirt and pants. He is a formless sack of porridge, jogging along with bricks (BRICKS) in each hand for additional weight. You don’t even have to watch the rest of the film to get that Rocky is classic basic in a necessity is the mother of invention kind of way, not in a Park Slope hipster kind of way. There is no fancy gym or high-end corporate sponsored training center here. There isn’t even a goddamn sidewalk! There is just the doing, the getting it done, the making it happen for the benefit of no one but Rocky.
In the montage, when Rocky isn’t running, he’s at his low-rent gym working the bag, doing one-armed push-ups, getting belted in the gut over and over again on purpose building up strength, stamina, and maybe a little internal bleeding. I’m watching and nodding in time to the close-up of Rocky’s granite bicep rising and falling like oars cutting through water. He’s not whining to his friend over coffee that he “just doesn’t feel inspired to train.” He’s not talking about getting around to training, to thinking about really digging into some training tomorrow. He’s not watching baby animals in little sweatsuits train on YouTube (real thing). He’s showing up and inviting some other dude to sock him in the stomach repeatedly and counting that as a plus. Noted.
And then, of course, there is the last stretch of the sequence that builds to the montage’s joyful peak, which begins with a shot of Rocky sprinting along the river, his legs becoming a pin-wheeling blur as he hurtles toward the museum steps. Underneath the wailing brass, a chorus of voices sings “Feeling strong now! Won’t be long now!” And suddenly, through no volition of your own, you kind of are Rocky. You’re leaning closer to your laptop as he reaches the top. You, too, want to thrust your fists up, shattering the air, sharing the glory of, what exactly? The top of the museum isn’t where the movie ends. It’s a pause in momentum before the rest of the work continues. Crap. What the hell, Rocky.
I got it.
No one was coming to pull me out of my creative funk, just like no one was going to tell Rocky to go ten rounds with his punching bag. I had to decide and in doing so understand that the way forward is about fighting for that decision every single day. A life revolving around some type of creative pursuit is about the choice to show up, to rise at 5 AM, put on your East German prison-issued grey sweat suit, grab a couple of bricks, and hit the trail, champ, in however that looks like to and whatever that means to you as the creative maker. It’s putting in the effort, doing the work, paying out whatever kind of sweat equity is involved in your choice of art (if that does involve getting hammered in the gut repeatedly, you may want to rethink your creative vocation), and to keep reaching, keeping climbing—higher. And when you do get to the top of the museum, savor the view, reward your efforts, relish your accomplishments. Then make your way back down and keep going.