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A Santa Barbara world premiere documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, opens cleverly, on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum where Rocky Balboa ended his training in the first Rocky movie. An interviewer asks passersby if they know who directed Rocky. Someone guesses Spielberg, others are completely befuddled. Of course in a sense the question is unfair. How many people would know the names of many movie directors besides Spielberg, Scorsese, and maybe one or two others? Directors have never been anywhere near as well known as the stars they helped to create. But this effective opening provides the perfect intro to a doc about John G. Avildsen, the forgotten auteur who won an Oscar for directing Rocky. This lively film will surely find an audience on TV or in a limited theatrical run.
As it happens, Scorsese is one of the impressive group of people interviewed in the doc. When he was a film student at NYU, the Oscar-winning master worked on a short film that Avildsen was shooting. Director Derek Wayne Johnson persuaded most of Avildsen’s later collaborators — including Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Ralph Macchio, Burt Reynolds and Jerry Weintraub (the late producer of Avildsen’s second-most-famous movie, The Karate Kid) — to share reminiscences of the director.
Avildsen’s background is fascinating. His father, Clarence Avildsen, was a highly successful businessman, so John did not emerge from the impoverished background that nurtured many other movie directors over the years. His father was also something of an amateur photographer who loved taking home movies, so John probably didn’t have to fight for his father’s approval when he started directing. Avildsen attracted attention in 1970 when he directed an early indie hit, Joe, sort of an anti-Easy Rider that made a hero of a bigoted redneck who predated Archie Bunker. Avildsen then directed Jack Lemmon to an Oscar in Save the Tiger, and he got his big break when he agreed to direct unknown Stallone in a low-budget boxing movie that the actor himself had written.
Even with the Oscar, Avildsen’s career did not exactly go into high gear. He was fired from a couple of big movies, including Saturday Night Fever, because he would not do the producers’ bidding. He followed Rocky with the disastrous ballet film, Slow Dancing in the Big City, that was written by his then-girlfriend, Barra Grant. After a few more flops, he returned to the limelight when he helmed another feel-good sports movie, The Karate Kid.
Avildsen comes across as a candid, lively storyteller, and the actors on camera add sharp anecdotes to fill out the portrait. Still, there are some disappointing gaps in the doc. A couple of Avildsen’s ex-wives appear briefly, but one would like to get a more candid sense of the filmmaker’s personal life.
Even his film career isn’t always treated as fully as one would like. Avildsen directed two Oscar-winning icons, George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, in a turkey called The Formula (1980) that surely deserved a few juicy tidbits. And to be honest, aside from a couple of highlights, Avildsen can hardly be counted one of the major auteurs to emerge in the 1970s. His career had more lows than highs, so a more critical eye might have been appreciated. Avildsen’s main achievement is that he survived, which is why he is now the subject of so many retrospectives and revival screenings of his few enduring hits. Still, this affectionate portrayal of an unpretentious journeyman director will engage his detractors as well as his admirers.
Production company: AJ16 Entertainment
Director-screenwriter-editor: Derek Wayne Johnson
Producers: Chris May, Emmett James, Derek Wayne Johnson
Executive producers: James Adamitis, Jodie Boyczuk, Will Boyczuk, Christopher J. Collier, Sara A. Collier, Bernard A. Dalichau, James L. Hussey
Cinematographer: Anthony Avildsen
Music: Greg Sims
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
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