It’s just another pile of New York City bricks with a neon-lit marquee, technically. But if you’re in Harlem and walk down 125th street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, the presence of The Apollo Theater is unmistakable.
The Apollo documentary, premiering on HBO on Wednesday, November 6, attempts to illustrate its cultural significance in black history for the past 85 years. And considering the venue is famed for its amateur nights in which performers were either cheered or booed with zeal, it’s fitting that the film is a rousing success.
The blur of archival images at the outset reminds us of the generational scope of the Apollo’s impact: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bo Diddley, Gregory Hines, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, LL Cool J, Redd Foxx, Chris Rock and Will Smith all took the stage at some point in their careers. When they played to the audience — 1506 patrons at full capacity — they knew in their bones this wasn’t just any gig. The Apollo represented a space where black audiences could gather under even the most trying of circumstances to witness and judge popular art by their own standards. Jeering aside, this was a safe haven. Jamie Foxx, Angela Bassett and activist Herb Boyd are some of the luminaries that express how the top-notch entertainment at the Apollo has always been secondary to the rich communal spirit.
Director Roger Ross Williams (an Oscar winner for the short Music by Prudence) weaves through performance and politics, past and present. Resident historian, tour director and ambassador Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell — he’s worked on the premises since 1965 — serves as our congenial guide (and frames the narrative), guiding curious pedestrians through the halls and delivering a more traditional overview to the camera.
It was white entrepreneur and promoter Frank Schiffman who opened the theater in Harlem in 1934 as a talent showcase. The real estate became hallowed ground almost immediately thanks to the craftsmanship on stage and the business savvy behind the scenes. The hard-nosed Schiffman kept typed index cards of every artist and noted everything from temperament to ability. On Charlie Parker: “Excellent musician.” On Dizzy Gillespie: “Not prepared.” Dizzy Gillespie!
The anecdotes that accompany some of these names are delicious in detail. In a remarkable account, a shy 17-year-old named Ella Fitzgerald originally planned to dance during the first year of Amateur Night in 1934. But after seeing the Edwards Sisters light up the stage with their synchronized steps, she decided to sing instead. She started scatting to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” and took home first prize. A few years later, Ralph Cooper, who created and hosted Amateur Night, scouted Billie Holiday and convinced Schiffman to give her a shot. She performed the haunting protest song, “Strange Fruit.”
Several artists give their own first-hand recollections, and, mercifully, don’t do it wearing rose-colored glasses. Smokey Robinson waxes about how he and the Miracles had to share a cramped eighth-floor dressing room and work their way down based on success; actress Leslie Uggams recalls her first show there and says she was getting ready to leave when she was told she had to grind through four more that very day. (Performers typically did 29 shows a week!). Even Aretha Franklin, in an interview filmed just before her 2018 death, laments that she’s still waiting on the money that Schiffman owed her.
Still, like most music-themed documentaries, the raw footage is the star of the show. And while it’s always amusing to gawk at acts before they hit it big, the videos here offer proper context to a specific time and place in our history. Consider that Richard Pryor elicits howls of laughter from the audience as he peppers the N-word throughout his stand-up material. Meanwhile, James Brown fearlessly declares, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” amid the civil rights riots of 1968. (After he died in 2006, the funeral was held at the Apollo as a tribute to both the venue and the hardest-working man in showbiz.) Barack Obama was the first sitting president to visit; he promptly brought down the house by crooning a few bars of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
The performances weren’t all groundbreaking crowd-pleasers. Though pre-teen, pre-Fugees Lauryn Hill covering a Smokey Robinson classic could be viewed in hindsight as a sign of her prodigious talent, the audience boos her. Off-stage, The Apollo endured its own hardships. Williams breezes through its woeful chapter in the 1970s when the site had to close due to bankruptcy. Manhattan borough President Percy B. Sutton tried but failed to turn it around financially. It’s now a federal and city landmark run by the state of New York.
Can this historical attraction remain mythical? After all, Harlem itself is now so gentrified that The Apollo is located across from, yikes, The Gap. The jazz greats that once breathed life inside that theater have given way to acts like Lady Gaga and Guns N’ Roses. These facts also go without mention. But Williams wisely culminates his film with a 2018 all-star on-stage reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” a manifesto to the experience of being black in America. No singing, no dancing, no jokes. It’s a strong statement on the social and political meaning behind every artistic performance: A community can indeed find healing through the power of art.
The Apollo premieres on HBO on Wednesday, November 6.