Sylvester “Sly” Stallone’s Hell’s Kitchen roots are key in setting the scene for a new Netflix documentary delving into the actor-writer not just as a “tough guy” action star, but as an innovative — and often frustrated — creator too often fenced in by his looks.
Filmed on the weekend of the 9th Avenue Food Festival in 2022, Stallone walked around his native Hell’s Kitchen with Sly director Thom Zimny — a place “I never, ever thought I would come back to,” he noted. Born on a sweltering July day in New York City — removed so forcefully from his mother’s body that one side of his face remains partially paralyzed in his signature scowl — Stallone lived in Hell’s Kitchen with his family until the age of five. “It was really Hell’s Kitchen back then,” Stallone remarked as he looked around at the tenement-style housing still present (if sometimes much more expensive) than during his tumultuous childhood.
His earliest memories of the neighborhood hinted at his future destiny as both an artist and a near obsessive observer of the human condition. “The window was always open — you learn a lot about human nature from what you observe,” he said, recalling his oft-abusive father as someone “out of an Arthur Miller play — it looked like A View from the Bridge.” His mother, a “cigarette girl” at the Diamond Horseshoe club along W46th Street at the Paramount Hotel, was rarely home, and he and brother Frank spent most of their time in nearby boarding houses before the family relocated to Maryland, and his parents divorced shortly thereafter.
Stallone would move back to New York as an adult, taking up residence anywhere he could find it — apartments, hostels, bus stations — and trying to break into an industry that didn’t know where to place him. Frustrated with a lack of acting roles beyond brute-and-brawn, Stallone spent his day job as a movie usher studying and recreating dialogue. Speaking of the actor’s commitment to his craft, Lords of Flatbush co-star Henry Winkler recalled Stallone painting the windows of his Lexington Avenue apartment black “so he could write.” After the soon-to-be-star completed a draft of Rocky, he used the money from Flatbush to buy a car, drove for days to Los Angeles and called Winkler, “the only person I knew” in Hollywood, said Stallone.
Slowly, Stallone made inroads, managing to get Rocky made. But even after the movie premiered — showing a first screening at the Upper East Side’s Cinema 1-2-3 — “20 minutes in, three-quarters of the audience was gone,” said Stallone, noting the touch-and-go reception of what would be his seminal work. “If I was going to go down in flames, I wanted to say that at least I tried — at least I had a home movie for my parents to enjoy,” he added. But despite initial audience misgivings, Rocky became a massive hit. What would follow — Rocky’s sometimes maligned sequels, the Rambo series, Stallone’s attempts to break into other genres — is explored throughout Sly, in which the actor meditates on a life of often messily carving a path in the arts.
Reviews of the documentary both commend the actor’s ability to reflect on his creative mistakes and condemn a format unable to reconcile some of the star’s more personal troubles, including past sexual assault allegations. “Playing at times like a missing Rocky documentary, Sly avoids the emotionally thorny material it might otherwise have been able to mine were it not so reverential towards its central star,” wrote film critic Siddhant Adlakha in Mashable’s review of the piece.
The documentary is “more a selective apologia than a thorough accounting,” added Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “By and large, Stallone narrates his own story, which means he controls it. (He also executive-produced the film.) We don’t hear much about his tumultuous private life or his controversies. The bombs discussed are a select few. So Sly isn’t a critical movie,” he added, “But it’s also not a hagiography, either. It adopts Stallone’s own partly bemused attitude toward his own career.”
But despite a lack of neutrality in the narrative direction, other critics noted that the documentary does challenge “several assumptions about Stallone, who narrates his life in startlingly candid, often heartbreaking, recollections about his rise and occasional falls,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday. “What emerges isn’t the superstar who turned Rocky and Rambo into American icons as much as a thoughtful, surprisingly self-aware artist, who happens to be much smarter, more sensitive and steeped in cinematic history than even his biggest fans might have known.”
The New York Times’s Nicolas Rapold added that “Stallone’s flair for words — and his references to Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and the 1968 dynastic drama The Lion in Winter — make one wish he’d talked about much more than his greatest hits and misses”, a point that Vulture critic Ebiri agrees with — adding that Stallone’s enduring legacy of work “were more expressions of frustration and impotence than anything else. That the emotions weren’t always convincing to some of us doesn’t really matter; what matters is that he lived them and felt them. As a movie, Sly is something of a mess. But as a portrait of a messy man, it can be quite moving.”