Posted April 25th, 2019

Ron Howard’s documentary about the iconic opera singer screened Wednesday, allowing audience members to relive Pavarotti’s most powerful performances.

Ron Howard shared his feelings of stage fright with the late opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, he told the audience at Wednesday’s Creative Artist Agency’s screening of the documentary Pavarotti.

As Howard demonstrated in his film, Pavarotti experienced extreme nervousness before performing. Howard said he could relate to Pavarotti, finding screenings “nerve-racking” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

“I’m always anxious because I’m never 100 percent sure how an audience is going to receive the scenes,” Howard told THR. “I’ve learned over the years that you can have a real belief in what it is that you’ve done, and somehow it’s not communicating to people the way you thought.”

Film is not only “entertainment through ideas,” but also a medium of communication, Howard said. He often has to reconcile what interests him and his understanding of the project with how people receive the film.

Howard and Brian Grazer’s company, Imagine Entertainment, worked with Nigel Sinclair and Guy East’s White Horse Pictures to produce the film in collaboration with Polygram Entertainment and StudioCanal. Paul Crowder joined the creative team as editor along with Mark Monroe as a writer. Together they took the film through the trial-and-error process of documentary filmmaking.

“People that don’t make docs [fail to] realize how much you depend on doing things wrong so you can get it right,” Monroe said. “A lot of the writing is in the editing. The shaping of the story — you’re learning as you go in terms of what works and what doesn’t work.”

Even with Pavarotti’s large impact, many people still do not consume opera regularly, Monroe added. “We did a lot of exploration into helping audiences understand opera,” Howard told THR. “I really wanted to let audiences understand how physical it is. It’s almost athletic what [opera singers] achieve.”

Pavarotti chose an art form that required “so much discipline,” throwing himself completely into his craft, Howard said. To have any success as an artist, a person has to have good taste and the bar has to be very high, Howard added. At the same time, that individual might feel insecure about not living “up to the possibilities of a project.” Howard described it as the “yin and yang of living an ambitious creative life.”

The biggest takeaway from the film for Howard was that the ambitious person in “the pursuit of excellent relationships, excellent living, excellent work … may find it frustrating,” he told THR. “Because if you’re that type of person, you may never actually reach it in your mind. But for all the rest of us observers, we’re going to say, ‘Wow, what a life.'”

Pavarotti hits theaters June 7.

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Pavarotti hits theaters June 7.

Posted April 25th, 2019

The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival got off on the right, tapping foot thanks to its opening night screening of The Apollo, Roger Ross Williams’ documentary about Harlem’s iconic theater, in the legendary hall that inspired it.

To squeeze 85 years of performances — many of them debuts or career-launching sparks — from Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and scores more into a documentary that doesn’t span the course of an entire day is a feat. To do so while seamlessly incorporating the cultural, communal and political forces that wove and continue to weave strong threads throughout the Apollo’s history and identity is herculean.

To squeeze 85 years of performances — many of them debuts or career-launching sparks — from Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and scores more into a documentary that doesn’t span the course of an entire day is a feat. To do so while seamlessly incorporating the cultural, communal and political forces that wove and continue to weave strong threads throughout the Apollo’s history and identity is herculean.

Williams succeeds in both respects, as The Apollo is a testament to the Apollo’s significance as a touchstone for black entertainment and culture as rich as its source material. (It will eventually reach a wide audience when it airs on HBO.) This wasn’t lost on the crowd who filled the theater’s 1,683 seats on Wednesday night (April 24).

“For 85 years, some of the greatest talent in history has graced this stage,” said the director during his introduction. (He touched the Tree of Hope, the lovingly worn tree stump that all Apollo performs approach before they take the stage, before he reached the microphone.) “Tonight is about celebrating that history and what it means to black people. Our struggle is defined by our music and our art. The film is a celebration of how far we’ve come, and a reminder of how much further we need to go. In the word of my esteemed composer Robert Glasper, don’t turn back now, we’ve come too far not to make it.”

This mission was apparent in Williams’ encyclopedic approach, as The Apollo is rife with reel treasures and testimony from pop, R&B and rock n’ roll’s most exclusive pantheon. Some of the pieces of footage, such as Hill’s debut on the Apollo stage one Amateur Night, is familiar; others, like a 12-year-old Wonder leading a full-band MoTown Revue with nothing more than his voice and a harmonica, are rarities. Frank Schiffman, the co-founder of the Apollo, kept copious, cheeky notes on the talent who came through the stage door on 126th street, and snapshots of these cards were shared (along with boisterous commentary from Dionne Warwick). From its first Amateur Night to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was adapted for the stage for the first time at the Apollo in 2018, The Apollo packs in several lifetimes of history without overwhelming the viewer with information or putting them to sleep in between concert clips.

If he were to simply rely on the stuffed vault of archival material, he’d have a fine documentary on his hands, but Williams took The Apollo from great to extraordinary by stressing how necessary it is to study the connection between current events and the creators living through them, and how thhis impacts the theater as much the art that keeps it open. Several artists share stories of touring through the Jim Crow South and performing throughout the Civil Rights Movement, and Robinson and Patti LaBelle recall sleeping in station wagons, being denied service in Southern restaurants and facing various hostilities on tour.

These experiences were the polar opposite of what they found at the Apollo. James Brown’s funeral was held there in 2006 after a lifetime spent performing at the theater (and recording some game-changing live albums, too), and Williams takes the time to connect the significance of 1968’s  “Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud” to the tumultuous period in which Brown released it. When footage of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” rolls, Williams anchors the somber protest anthem with a discussion about why Holiday’s label hesitated to release it and how she was able to perform it, free of censorship and corporate interests, on the Apollo’s stage.

The inclusion of Paul McCartney’s voice is a potent move, one that attempts to right a wrong frequently perpetrated in the writing of rock history. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and other white, guitar-slinging musicians are often dubbed the forefathers of rock n’ roll in lieu of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the other black artists who actually laid the groundwork for American popular music at large. By putting McCartney in front of camera to share his adoration of black music — and specifically his insistence that the Beatles desperately wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Apollo when they first touched down stateside — Williams makes space for these artists while setting the record straight.

This all underscores the heart of The Apollo, which stresses that the theater isn’t a shrine for the stars of yesteryear, but a blank canvas for new work and new stories — even in the toughest times. Footage of Between the World and Me’s run opens and closes the documentary, with Angela Bassett, Common and more giving voice to Coates’ words throughout the production.

Written as a letter to his young son in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, Between the World and Me confronts the violent racism of the real world through the trauma of Coates’ lived experience, and The Apollo shows discussions between the play’s cast members as they unpack his text and its themes. Williams’ lens then turns to Coates as he watches Bassett read from the wings. It’s a moment as moving and incendiary as when Franklin brought the room to their stamping feet, or when Brown whipped himself into a frenzy, or when Hill returned to the Apollo alongside the Fugees after her Amateur Night debut.

And that, in a single shot, is the whole point: The Apollo trusts black voices to tell their stories in their vivid, brilliant, revolutionary ways, and The Apollo put that relationship under a much-deserved spotlight.

Before Williams came out, Tribeca Film Festival founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal delivered their opening remarks. “In these disturbing times, when the administration is promoting divisiveness and racism, by being here tonight, we’re making a statement that we reject it,” De Niro said to thunderous applause. It was just another night at the Apollo, and those nights are worth celebrating well into the next 85 years.

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Posted April 25th, 2019

The Tribeca Film Festival in recent years has opened with documentaries about the soul and institutions that are pillars of New York City, whether with subjects like Saturday Night Live or local native and music mogul Clive Davis, and this year was no exception as the 18th Robert De Niro-Jane Rosenthal co-created event shined a spotlight on Harlem’s holy entertainment venue: The Apollo Theater on 125th street, subject of the premiering Roger Ross Williams’ HBO documentary The Apollo. 

“Every time I set foot in this hall of art and entertainment, I can feel its incredible history. I hear the echoes of the artists who performed here, the audiences who came here to be entertained, to applaud, sometimes to jeer, and often to be moved. In these disturbing times when the administration is promoting divisiveness and racism, by being here tonight, we’re making a statement that we reject it,” said De Niro to great cheers.

“No you don’t! Not in this house! Not on this stage!,” De Niro shouted at the Donald Trump presidential administration.

“Amen!” responded attendees in the house.

Typically, Tribeca kicks off the festival at the Upper West Side Beacon Theatre which seats 2,894. With The Apollo, natch, premiering at The Apollo, attendance was smaller this year given the venue’s three-tiered 1,506 seating capacity.

The doc, a six year journey in the making, covers plenty of ground, largely beginning with the theater’s swing era (The Apollo was built in 1913-14) of Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, moving to Ella Fitzgerald forgetting her lines in a song and finding her scatting voice, to a 13-year old Lauryn Hill getting rejected by the crowd (only to return years as an adult and knock their socks off), to James Brown being a beacon during the black-power revolution with his anthem “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” and to President Barack Obama becoming the first U.S. President to step onto the legendary stage of African American art and culture which has triumphed over racism and oppression through history.

One of the more current-day story lines running throughout the doc is the stage rehearsal and 2018 spoken word performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” the author’s letter to his teenage son about the feelings, symbolism, and realities associated with being black in the United States and the racist violence woven into American culture. In the face of adversity, The Apollo was a safe haven for the voice, no matter how big or small, of African American culture.

Largely run by Frank Schiffman during the swing and Motown eras, he amassed a huge index card file on acts that played there, how much each grossed, and a brief and blunt critique of their performances. That said, while the Cotton Club and Savoy had white-only audiences, The Apollo was a venue that African Americans could call their own. Quite often more established black acts during the Motown era would forgo playing the establishment in favor of white only venues, but that changed when The Apollo reached out to Eartha Kitt, who made a point to absolutely play there.

It was through Schiffman’s talent booker Ralph Cooper that The Apollo first launched its legendary Amateur Nights, giving a voice to fresh and burgeoning comedy and musical acts. New talent would come in from around the country, sometimes broke, for a shot to audition. The crowd at The Apollo was scary for any performer, as Richard Pryor explains in the film, being known to boo acts off stage. However, The Apollo wasn’t a venue for button-down dramatic theater, but for passion and soul. Booing was a right of passage and for any act gracing the stage, it only served to make them better.

Keeping The Apollo alive financially was always a risky proposition (even with Gladys Knight & The Pips performing several shows from 11am to 11pm during their 1960s beginnings) and the business model couldn’t sustain itself through various owners. In 1991 the state of New York bought the Apollo and created the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation to run it.

Last night, Williams, who won an Oscar for the 2010 short subject doc Music by Prudence, said, “For 85 years, the greatest talent in history graced this stage. Tonight is about celebrating that history and what it means to black people. Our struggles are defined by our music and our art. This film is a celebration of how far we’ve come, but how farther we need to go. In the words of my esteemed composer Robert Glasper, ‘Don’t turn back now, we’ve come too far not to make it.’”

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