Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of Rocky Balboa, the underdog who gets a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship, has inspired millions since the first “Rocky” movie arrived in 1976. But perhaps no one has taken the Italian Stallion’s message to heart as much as Mike Kunda, the subject of new documentary “The Pretender.”
The 50-minute film, which gets its world premiere Thursday at Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre, tracks Kunda over a five-year period as he leaves his comfortable middle-class life behind to follow his dream of becoming a full-time Stallone impersonator. Kunda and the filmmakers will answer audience questions after the screening.
“The movie is a Rorschach test,” says director Jim Toscano of Sterling Heights. “Whatever someone takes away from it tells a lot about that person. … To me, it’s about no matter how crazy your dreams are or what people say, do what you love and give it 100%, which is exactly what Mike is doing.”
The 50-year-old Kunda lives in a suburban Philadelphia ranch house that has a basement shrine to Stallone. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Stallone, especially when he’s wearing a trademark black leather jacket, battered fedora and butterfly bandage over a bruised left eye.
Toscano met Kunda a decade ago when both men were spectators on the set of “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth film in the “Rocky” series. Toscano was working for a Detroit-area advertising agency. Kunda, according to Toscano, “was attracting all sorts of attention as this super fan. He had this big painting he had made of Rocky and was on the local news every night. … He had this energy about him that I really connected with, so we kept in touch.”
The two men met at the perfect time. Kunda was still flying high from the Rocky look-alike contest he had won in 2006. Toscano was about to launch his own production company, Free Age, with a coworker, Danny Gianino, in Eastern Market. After a couple of years of working on industrial and commercial projects, the filmmaking partners were ready to make their own documentaries.
“I thought of this as a short, maybe a five-minute thing,” says Toscano, “but my first time going down there, it all changed. I interviewed him and his parents, and they were so proud of him, but also worried about him. I just knew it had to be something bigger, yet I still needed time to get my skills together as a filmmaker to do his story justice.”
Toscano ended up shooting Kunda from about 2010 through 2015. Though he had enjoyed relative success at everything from police work to optometry, nothing made Kunda happier than his Stallone obsession, which has since morphed into “Rocky”-themed bus tours that take fans to Philadelphia locations used in the movie.
Part of the movie is about Kunda’s attempts to make a personal connection with his idol, including sending the actor a copy of his self-published memoir, “Cue the Rocky Music.” Filmmaker Toscano says that whether he meets Stallone is not really the point.
“Mike may say that’s his goal, and people may even think that from watching the movie,” says Toscano. “But what he’s doing now, connecting with people over `Rocky,’ doing what he has always wanted to do — I think he has reached his goal already.”
Contact John Monaghan: firstname.lastname@example.org
7:30 p.m. Thu.; meet-and-greet at 6:30 p.m.
Main Art Theatre
118 N. Main St., Royal Oak
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