The legendary Harlem show palace gets the documentary it deserves, a bracing and moving look at how a parade of extraordinary popular artists redefined black America — and America, period — from one stage.
Director: Roger Ross WilliamsWith: Pharrell Williams, Leslie Uggams, Jamie Foxx, Patti LaBelle, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Smokey Robinson, Paul McCarney, Charles Rangel.
You should never take for granted a documentary that fills in the basics with flair and feeling. Especially when the basics consist of great big gobs of some of the most revolutionary and exhilarating popular art ever created in this country. Roger Ross Williams’ documentary “The Apollo,” which kicked off the Tribeca Film Festival on a note of soulful celebration (at a premiere held, of course, at the Apollo Theater), fills in the 85-year history of the 1,506-seat show palace on 125th St. in Harlem that changed black culture and changed American culture (no, it was more than that — the Apollo changed black life and changed American life). The movie brings off that feat in a bracing and moving way: by flowing back and forth between past and present, performance and political activism, so that by the end we know in our bones how false it would be separate them.
Countless astonishing spectacles of black expression were experienced, for the first time, on the Apollo stage. But in “The Apollo,” an event that stands out is the weekly gladiatorial talent show known as Amateur Night, an Apollo institution ever since the theater began its life in 1934. The glory of Amateur Night was at once aesthetic and existential. Anyone who wanted to could get up on stage, which meant that even the most marginalized members of a marginalized community could have a voice. The Apollo gave them access. You could say that the dream that drives every music-competition reality show was born, decades before, at the Apollo. And though the Apollo didn’t have judges, it had something every bit as judgey (and dramatic): the audience. They were the toughest crowds on earth, and loved nothing more than to exercise their power by booing someone off the stage.
But that didn’t mean Amateur Night was anything but a joyous free-for-all. To make the grade, you had to shine; the audience was celebrating its own high standards. And the effect of all that energy was to burnish (or, in some cases, just burn) the talent in front of it. Ella Fitzgerald first appeared on Amateur Night in 1934, when she was 17; she forgot the lyrics to the song she was singing, so she started scatting — and the rest is history. But then we see an Apollo clip of Lauryn Hill from the late 1980s, when she was just 13. She’s pitchy as hell, and the crowd rejects her. (In this case, history would have to wait a few years for a reset.)
On Amateur Night, the excitement was in knowing that you could see just about anything (including an act that might change the world). And that’s the excitement of watching “The Apollo.” The movie, through its addictive and exhaustively researched film and video clips, salutes a shocking range of genius, from Duke Ellington leading an orchestra so tight that each note seems to glisten to Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” with a bitterness so acidic it stings, from Little Stevie Wonder doing the apocalyptic version of “Fingertips (Pt. 2)” that became famous to Aretha Franklin performing a ’70s rendition of “Respect” that makes the studio version sound shy, from Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins tap dancing with such exquisite synchronization that their simplest steps are hypnotic to Richard Pryor entering the mind of a white cop who “accidentally” kills a black citizen in a way that makes the laughter freeze in your throat.
Swing and bebop, funk and soul; crooners and torch singers; Motown and the avant-garde; blackface in the ’30 and drag in the ’60s; stand-up comedy and spoken-word poetry: the Apollo was a protean stage of the imagination, a place that stretched the limits, then reset and stretched them again. What was enacted on that stage, every night, was possibility.
Along the way, there are great stories, like Smokey Robinson talking about how first-timers got the cramped eighth-floor dressing rooms and had to work their way down, or Leslie Uggams recalling how after doing her first show there, and getting ready to leave the theater, she was told that she had four more shows to do that day. Performers typically did 29 shows a week. And if can’t quite be said that all of them were underpaid, we do get a glimpse of the typed index cards that Frank Schiffman, the hard-nosed promoter who bought the place in 1934, kept on each and every act. He sounds like a utilitarian (but weirdly tasteful) Hollywood mogul as he grinds out notes that are tough, fair, and rooted in a financial paradigm. Yet at a time when the Cotton Club and the Savoy were whites-only venues, he was opening doors.
The Apollo, the movie argues, was a kind of “university” for its performers, who tried out aesthetic styles and moves that became world-famous. Paul McCartney talks about how the Beatles, who had baptized themselves in the sound of groups like the Isley Brothers (“Twist and Shout”), were eager to visit the Apollo during their first American tour, but were steered away from it because it was “too dangerous.” That was a paranoid white view of the violence of the inner city, and there’s a touching story about how a chain of people formed around the Apollo to protect it during the Harlem riot of 1964. (Not a pane of glass was broken.) Then again, it’s not as if the Apollo had to hide from the black-power revolution. It was practically launched there — almost literally, with James Brown’s epochal performance of “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
What did the Apollo in, ironically, was the mass success of the artists it helped launch. They’d gotten too big to play there, a situation exacerbated by the fact that there weren’t enough seats. Part of the magic of the Apollo is its majestic intimacy; I saw Prince perform there from the balcony, and felt like I was practically on top of him. But by the mid-’70s, its days as a headline spot were over, and it closed its doors, as if succumbing to the general urban decay around it, as money got sucked out of Harlem and into the suburbs. The movie tells the happy-ending story of how the Apollo was renovated and saved, first by the former Manhattan borough president Percy B. Sutton (who, though he tried, couldn’t make it a successful business), and ultimately by the State of New York, which set up the Apollo Theater Foundation to sustain it.
The Apollo remains a mythical historical attraction and a still-active theater that draws over a million visitors annually. The movie is framed with the rehearsal, and 2018 performance, of “Between the World and Me,” a stage version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ incendiary, free-form manifesto written as a letter to his teenage son about the experience of being black in America. It’s the only piece of non-musical, non-dance drama in the movie, yet its presence serves to coax out something essential: that every moment of stage performance the Apollo Theater ever saw was political — not because it carried some underlying social or political message, but because it represented, through the incandescence of its artistry, the assertion of blackness in the world. Malcolm X said that equality for African-Americans should be achieved by any means necessary. The Apollo demonstrated — and “The Apollo” deftly captures — how one of the means to achieve it was beauty.
Tribeca Film Review: ‘The Apollo’
Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Gala), April 24, 2019. Running time: 98 MIN.
PRODUCTION: An HBO release of a White Horse Pictures, The Lagralane Group production. Producers: Lisa Cortes, Nigel Sinclair, Jeanne Elfant Festa, Cassidy Hartmann, Roger Ross Williams.
CREW: Director: Roger Ross Williams. Screenplay: Cassidy Hartmann, Jean Tsien. Camera (color, widescreen): Michael Dwyer. Editor: Jean Tsien, John S. Fisher. Music: Robert Glasper.
WITH: Pharrell Williams, Leslie Uggams, Jamie Foxx, Patti LaBelle, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Smokey Robinson, Paul McCarney, Charles Rangel.
The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival opens with Roger Ross Williams’ moving ode to the historic Harlem theater.
Even non-Manhattanites have heard, likely due to its famed amateur night, of the Harlem institution known as the Apollo Theater. This decades-long gathering place for an African-American community that often was, and still very much is, under siege gets a splendid tribute in Roger Ross Williams’ 2019 Tribeca Film Festival opener, and HBO-bound feature, The Apollo.
Fittingly, the movie world-premiered in the very venue it was honoring, and Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro used the opportunity to take a few swipes at the racist dog-whistling of a certain commander-in-chief. “Not in this house!” he thundered, while conspicuously keeping the bad-behaved twit in question unmentioned. The audience, wildly applauding, knew exactly who he meant.
As Williams’ film goes on to show, displays of both approbation and reproach are common at The Apollo. A performer quickly knows if they’ve got the masses (1,506 patrons at full capacity) on their side, and among the archival treasures here is a video of 13-year-old Lauryn Hill not quite blowing the crowd away. There’s an element of danger to taking that stage, something not necessarily relieved by rubbing the “Tree of Hope” stump, the remains of a “good luck” elm chopped down in 1934 (the year the theater first opened its doors to black spectators) that sits just by the wings.
But there are innumerable triumphs as well, which many interviewees recall with a dazed gleam in their eye. Leslie Uggams, who first graced the Apollo stage as a 9-year-old, reminisces about opening for Louis Armstrong. Jamie Foxx talks about comics like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, who told harsh truths (about poverty and police brutality, among other oppressions) in ways that would have Apollo attendees doubled over with laughter.
There’s some amazing footage of an older Billie Holiday breathing fiery life into “Strange Fruit,” which she performed at the theater in its early days against the counsel of the powers-that-be, as well as an early Motown gathering that features a coterie of grand-talents-in-the-making such as Diana Ross and the Supremes and a 12-year-old Stevie Wonder. And no Apollo retrospective would be complete without fervent consecrations of the Godfather and the Queen of Soul, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, each of whom raised their audiences’ spirits in revolutionary ways.
The film isn’t just enshrining the Apollo’s history, however. Williams is as concerned with the theater’s future, with what its place is in a world that is perhaps better than it was, but remains in so many ways (and to African-Americans in particular) emphatically terrible. The Apollo eavesdrops on a few soul-searching board meetings chaired by CEO Janelle Procope and her team (the closest the doc gets to Frederick Wiseman-esque vérité). It also observes rehearsals for and the premiere performance of a star-studded stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s epistolary polemic Between the World and Me. Angela Bassett and Common absolutely kill their contributions.
In these scenes, Williams seems to be pondering if the Apollo — which survived a bankruptcy-incited closure in the ’70s, and is now a federal and city landmark run by a State of New York non-profit — can remain an indefinitely vital house of congregation and inspiration. Well, who can speak to eternity? But the fact that the theater has stood steadfast among so much change (good, ill and indifferent) suggests it will at the least endure. And The Apollo goes a long way to ensuring that the memories created in this one-of-a-kind space will be neither fleeting nor forgotten.
Director: Roger Ross Williams Producers: Lisa Cortes, Nigel Sinclair, Jeanne Elfant Festa, Cassidy Hartmann, Roger Ross Williams Screenwriters: Cassidy Hartmann, Jean Tsien Cinematographer: Michael Dwyer Editors: Jean Tsien, John S. Fisher Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)
The 18th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival is set to take over downtown Manhattan on April 24 through May 5, and the 100-plus movies that will be showcased at the annual affair tackle a variety of genres and topics.
From much-anticipated documentaries to highly advertised feature films dealing with themes that have resonated within society both politically and culturally throughout the year, the 2019 lineup looks as stellar as ever.
Although there is still much ground to cover, the changing landscape of the industry makes itself apparent more than ever today: 40% of the feature films showcased are directed by women, 29% by people of color and 13% by LGBTQIA.
Here are the 20 productions we’re most excited to catch:
1. The Apollo
Oscar winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams is behind this documentary that takes a deeper look at the history of the iconic venue in New York City, which will host the world-premiere of the screening and kick off the year’s festival. The film also explores the first stage production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
2. The Quiet One
The film focuses on artist and original bassist for the Rolling Stones Bill Wyman, dubbed a “man of few words.” Expect to take a peek behind his personal archives, filled with photographs, memorabilia and unseen footage, in addition to interviews with family and friends.
3. A Day in the Life of America
Actor Jared Leto puts on his director hat for this documentary that features footage from all 50 American states over the Fourth of July, creating an all-encompassing view of the country.
Christoph Waltz’s directorial debut centers around Ulrich Mott, an “eccentric social climber” that “throws lavish parties with his much-older wife.” The film stars the director himself alongside Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Waltz’s wife, and Annette Bening, his wife’s daughter.
Margot Robbie plays Allison Wells, a fugitive bank robber with a bounty on her head. Finn Cole sees her capture and the money he’d receive from that bounty as the only way to save his family’s farm, which is on the brink of foreclosure.
6. American Woman
This fictional drama is inspired by the much-chronicled 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst, who was 19 years old when taken from her apartment in Berkeley, California and beaten by an urban guerilla group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Mad Men producer Semi Chellas’ directorial debut is a fictionalized retelling of Hearst’s time in hiding.
Freida Pinto and Leslie Odom Jr. star in this post-apocalyptic love story about a mysterious plague that only affects females.
8. Framing John DeLorean
Framing John DeLorean focuses on the infamous auto executive whose company crashed in the ’80s following corruption- and drug-related charges. Alec Baldwin stars as the titular character.
9. Come to Daddy
Elijah Wood is the star of this thriller: after a suicide attempt and heavy drug usage, he ventures out to his estranged father’s waterfront home in the hopes of reconnecting with him. But, upon his arrival, he notices strange things happening.
10. Standing Up, Falling Down
Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal play two parts of an unlikely friendship between a stand-up comedian and a dermatologist in Long Island in this comedy directed by Matt Ratner.
11. Ask Doctor Ruth
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, now 90, is the subject of this documentary by Ryan White exploring her career as a celebrity sex therapist and, even more interestingly, her life as a Holocaust survivor.
12. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Following Netflix’s successful documentary about serial killer Ted Bundy, this new film chronicles Bundy’s crimes from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend Liz (Lily Collins). Zac Efron stars as Bundy himself.
13. I Want My MTV
Explore the launch and early days of the culture-defining, music-centric network MTV in this documentary by Tyler Meason and Patrick Waldrop. Executives, musicians and veejays who were part of the 1981 launch and beyond appear on-camera for interviews.
14. The Kill Team
An unlikely duo, Alexander Skarsgård and Nat Wolff, play American soldiers in Afghanistan in this true crime thriller directed by Dan Krauss.
In Luce, Octavia Spencer plays an “overbearing teacher” whose perspective on Luce, one of his students, is shattered after an “unsettling essay” that he pens. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play Luce’s adoptive parents.
16. Other Music
Now permanently closed, Other Music was a record store in New York’s West Village that, for 20 years, also functioned as a cultural and neighborhood staple. This documentary chronicles its history by featuring bands the likes of the Strokes, Vampire Weekend and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Already heavily marketed and picked up for distribution by Universal Pictures, Yesterday imagines a world with no Beatles. Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle directs Himesh Patel as a struggling singer-songwriter in England who appropriates Beatles’ songs when nobody else knows about their existence. The result? Life-shattering fame, of course.
18. Safe Spaces
Adjunct professor Josh (Justin Long) is dealing with a budding romance, a class of college students and his grandmother’s illness in this comedy also starring Fran Drescher and Richard Schiff.
19. After Parkland
Spend 90 minutes witnessing the immediate aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that shook the country to its core. The documentary features footage with both students and their parents.
20. Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston
Learn about the rise and fall of Halston, dubbed America’s “first celebrity designer” and a staple of the city’s nightlife scene. Billy Joel, Anjelica Huston, Diane von Furstenberg and Liza Minnelli are just some of the many people featured in interviews.