Posted November 1st, 2019

By Robert Abele

A space like the Apollo Theater, Harlem’s high church of American music, didn’t just play host to up-and-comers, storied legends and energetic wannabes — it amplified the sound and spirit of black entertainment in a way that reverberated far outside its walls.

Any movie tasked with celebrating its 85 years as a cultural landmark would have its work cut out for it, which makes Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’ beautifully turned, rich and moving documentary “The Apollo” a true gift for these turbulent, who-are-we? times: essential history and quintessential performance expertly woven together to remind us what lasting, vibrant artistry and community looks like. From the heyday of jazz to the sweetness of soul and the power of hip-hop — with the reality of race ever present — Williams offers up a celebration worthy of the Apollo’s legacy.

With its blend of the archival, the interviewed, and modern-day footage, the first miracle of the film is that it never feels overstuffed with talking heads, or perfunctorily assembled, or rushed in covering its many glories across nearly a century. It’s a real beating-heart tribute, always streaked with feeling, whether joyous or poignant. That’s partly because the theater’s spirit, from its Depression-era launch as a mixed hot spot at a time when black people couldn’t patronize nightclubs in their own backyard, always intertwined excellence in black entertainment — launching the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder, and cementing the live chops of countless others across music, dance and comedy — with the notion that simply being on that stage, in that audience, constituted not only a vital act of expression, but also a feeling of home. It’s why Williams always threads in footage old and new of the block’s streets and citizens among the glittering stories and stars, as if to stress that the Apollo was as much a good neighbor as a grand beacon.

Williams makes the potent choice to bracket this history with a verité glimpse of the Apollo’s behind-the-scenes preparation for a multimedia staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ galvanizing book, “Between the World and Me.” Coates’ words of ceaseless struggle and fierce belonging echo through the film as we see Holliday make the Apollo a safe space for protest music with “Strange Fruit” (which she was pressured not to perform), favorite son James Brown anthemize the civil rights era with “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and truth-to-power rap artists flood the stage in the ’80s.

Just as inspiring is the tradition surrounding the Apollo’s fabled amateur night — the world’s longest-running talent show, a lively format by which the untapped (who have included Ella Fitzgerald and Lauryn Hill over the years) can command the spotlight, and perhaps earn a famously boo-ready crowd’s hard-won love. But like a lot about the Apollo, it’s the opportunity to give voice to that which lies behind this beloved rite. Cincinnati student Bianca Graham traveled to New York by bus to perform a soaring rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” and when she tears up at the memory of a friend shot and killed by a cop, you can believe the theater’s soul must course through each and every respect-paying hopeful that hits its stage.

Singer James Brown being interviewed after he performed at the Apollo in 1968, from the documentary ‘The Apollo’

The anecdotes are like music too, with spirited tales of nerves, awe and camaraderie from Smokey Robinson, Leslie Uggams, Patti Labelle and Pharrell Williams, and necessary context from backstage overseers like former owner Bobby Schiffman, current President Jonelle Procope and historian/tour guide Billy Mitchell. From these reverent insiders, and Williams’ graceful stewardship, comes a lasting portrait of an artistic institution that’s seen ups and downs but continues to thrive by bringing people together and getting the most out of many of them. It’s hard not to forget an early clip of Ella Fitzgerald and what she heard way on that amateur night in 1934 when her then-unknown teenage self balked at following the crowd-slaying, legendary Edwards Sisters with her own meager dance routine.

A man yelled, “You’re out here, do something.” So she sang.

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Posted October 10th, 2019

As usual, the pack of docs is insane. It will be extremely hard to reduce them to 5. I half wonder, as I do every year, if the Academy ought to give docs a bigger presence at the Oscars – a whole Oscars for DOCS, even, that honor things like writing and directing, etc. Either way, here are the films selected for the shortlist.

Apollo 11, Amazing Grace, American Factory, For Sama, Cunningham, Sea of Shadows, the Biggest Little Farm are a few that have made some noise already.

The 2019 Awards will be presented during a ceremony at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on Saturday, December 7. Tickets are on sale now.

IDA Documentary Awards 2019 Features Shortlist

Advocate (Israel, Canada, Switzerland. Directors and Producers: Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche. Producers: Paul Cadieux and Joelle Bertossa)

Amazing Grace (USA / NEON. Producers: Alan Elliot, Tirrell D. Whittley, Sabrina V. Owens, Joe Boyd, Rob Johnson, Chiemi Karasawa, Spike Lee, Angie Seegers and Joseph Woolf)

American Factory (USA / Netflix. Directors and Producers: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. Producers: Jeff Reichert and Julie Parker Benello)

Apollo 11 (USA / NEON and CNN Films. Director and Producer: Todd Douglas Miller. Producers: Thomas Petersen and Evan Strauss)

Aquarela (UK, Germany, Denmark / Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Victor Kossakovsky. Producers: Aimara Reques, Heino Deckert and Sigrid Dyekjær)

Black Mother (USA / Grasshopper Film. Director and Producer: Khalik Allah. Producer: Leah Giblin)

Cunningham (USA, Germany / Magnolia Pictures. Director and Producer: Alla Kovgan. Producers: Helge Albers, Ilann Girard, Elizabeth Delude-Dix, Kelly Gilpatrick and Derrick Tseng)

Dark Suns (Canada / Dogwoof. Director and Producer: Julien Elie)

Diego Maradona (UK / HBO. Director: Asif Kapadia. Producers: James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin)

EARTH (Austria / KimStim. Director and Producer: Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Producers: Michael Kitzberger, Markus Glaser and Wolfgang Widerhofer)

For Sama (UK, Syria / PBS Distribution, FRONTLINE. Director and Producer: Waad al-Kateab. Director: Edward Watts)

Hail Satan? (USA, Sweden / Magnolia Pictures. Director: Penny Lane. Producer: Gabriel Sedgwick)

Honeyland (Macedonia / NEON. Director: Tamara Kotevska. Director and Producer: Ljubomir Stefanov. Producer: Atanas Georgiev)

Kabul, City in the Wind (Netherlands, Afghanistan, Germany. Director: Aboozar Amini. Producer: Jia Zhao)

Lemebel (Chile, Colombia / Compañía de Cine. Director and Producer: Joanna Reposi Garibaldi. Producer: Paula Sáenz-Laguna)

Midnight Family (Mexico, USA / 1091. Director and Producer: Luke Lorentzen. Producers: Kellen Quinn, Daniela Alatorre and Elena Fortes)

Midnight Traveler (USA, UK, Qatar / Oscilloscope Laboratories. Director: Hassan Fazili. Producers: Su Kim and Emelie Coleman Mahdavian)

One Child Nation (USA / Amazon Studios. Directors and Producers: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. Producers: Christoph Jörg, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements and Carolyn Hepburn)

Our Time Machine (China / POV, Da Xiang. Directors and Producers: Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang)

Present.Perfect. (USA, Hong Kong / Burn The Film. Director: Shengze Zhu. Producer: Zhengfan Yang)

Roll Red Roll (USA / POV. Director and Producer: Nancy Schwartzman. Producers: Steven Lake and Jessica Devaney)

Sea of Shadows (USA, Austria / National Geographic. Director: Richard Ladkani. Producers: Walter Kohler and Wolfgang Knopfler)

The Apollo (USA / HBO. Director and Producer: Roger Ross Williams. Producers: Lisa Cortés, Jeanne Elfant Festa and Cassidy Hartmann)

The Biggest Little Farm (USA / NEON, LD Entertainment. Director and Producer: John Chester. Producer: Sandra Keats)

The Cave (USA, Syria, Denmark / National Geographic. Director: Feras Fayyad. Producers: Kirstine Barfod and Sigrid Dyekjaer) 

The Edge of Democracy (USA, Brazil / Netflix. Director and Producer: Petra Costa. Producers: Joanna Natasegara, Shane Boris and Tiago Pavan)

The Feeling of Being Watched (USA / POV. Director: Assia Boundaoui. Producer: Jessica Devaney)

The Hottest August (USA, Canada / Grasshopper Film. Director and Producer: Brett Story. Producer: Danielle Varga)

The Proposal (USA / Oscilloscope Laboratories. Director: Jill Magid. Producers: Charlotte Cook, Laura Coxson and Jarred Alterman)

This is Not a Movie (Germany, Canada / National Film Board of Canada. Director: Yung Chang. Producers: Anita Lee, Allyson Luchak, Nelofer Pazira and Ingmar Trost)

IDA Documentary Awards 2019 Shorts Shortlist

30 for 30 Shorts: Mack Wrestles (USA / ESPN. Directors and Producers: Taylor Hess and Erin Sanger. Producers: Erin Leyden and Gentry Kirby)

A Love Song for Latasha (USA. Director and Producer: Sophia Nahli Allison. Producers: Janice Duncan and Fam Udeorji)

After Maria (USA / Netflix. Director: Nadia Hallgren. Producer: Lauren Cioffi)

All Inclusive (Switzerland / Some Shorts. Director: Corina Schwingruber Ilić. Producer: Stella Händler)

America (USA / Aubin Pictures. Director: Garrett Bradley. Producers: Lauren Domino and Catherine Gund)

Black to Techno (USA / Frieze. Director: Jenn Nkiru)

Easter Snap (USA. Director and Producer: RaMell Ross. Producers: Joslyn Barnes and Su Kim)

In the Absence (USA, Korea / Field of Vision. Director: Yi Seung-Jun. Producer: Gary Byung-Seok Kam)

La Bala de Sandoval (Ecuador / Vtape. Director and Producer: Jean-Jacques Martinod)

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl) (UK, USA, Afghanistan / Lifetime Films, A&E IndieFilms. Director: Carol Dysinger. Producer: Elena Andreicheva)

Lost and Found (USA, Myanmar / National Geographic. Director: Orlando von Einsiedel. Producers: Mark Bauch, Harri Grace and Dan Lin)

Marielle and Monica (Brazil, UK / The Guardian. Director: Fabio Erdos. Producer: Marina Costa)

Sam and the Plant Next Door (UK / The Guardian. Director and Producer: Omer Sami)

Scenes from a Dry City (USA / Field of Vision. Directors and Producers: Simon Wood and Francois Verster)

Show Me the Way (USA / Topic.com. Director and Producer: Kate Kunath)

St. Louis Superman (USA / MTV Documentary Films, Al Jazeera Witness and Meralta Films. Directors and Producers: Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan. Producer: Poh Si Teng)

The Love Bugs (USA. Directors and Producers: Allison Otto and Maria Clinton)

The Nightcrawlers (USA, Philippines / National Geographic. Director: Alexander Mora. Producers: Joanna Natasekura, Doireann Maddock and Abigail Anketell-Jones)

The Separated (USA / The Atlantic. Director and Producer: Jeremy Raff)

The Unconditional (USA. Director and Producer: Dave Adams. Producers: Adam Soltis, Renee Woodruff Adams, Josie Swantek Heitz and Chris Tuss)

Valley of the Rulers (Serbia, Israel. Director: Efim Graboy. Producer: Dejan Petrovic)

The 35th Annual IDA Documentary Awards honorees, were announced earlier this week. The honorees are:

Academy Award and Primetime Emmy-winning filmmaker (and five time Academy Award nominee) Freida Lee Mock (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear VisionAnita) who will receive the Career Achievement Award

Emmy nominated filmmaker Rachel Lears (Knock Down The HouseThe Hand That Feeds) who will receive the Emerging Doc Filmmaker Award

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides pro bono legal representation and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists, who will receive the Amicus Award

And the film foundation and production company Cinereach that will receive the Pioneer Award

View on AwardsDaily.com

Posted August 2nd, 2019

EXCLUSIVE: White Horse Pictures chairman Nigel Sinclair and president Nicholas Ferrall have made a multi-picture partnership with Reelin’ In The Years Productions president David Peck to create more documentaries in the film and TV space.

The companies have worked piecemeal on films since 2006. Those collaborations include the Ron Howard-directed Pavarotti and The Beatles: Eight Days A Week — The Touring Years, as well as Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who, George Harrison: Living In the Material World, the upcoming docu on The Bee Gees that Frank Marshall is directing, and The Apollo, the Roger Ross Williams-directed docu that opened at Tribeca and will be launched on HBO this fall celebrating the history of the iconic Harlem theater.

Reelin’ In The Years is a gatekeeper in licensing archival footage that feeds these documentaries, with over 30,000 hours of music footage and much more in interviews in its arsenal.

Sinclair, who leads the White Horse docu team with documentary head Jeanne Elfant Festa and TV head Cassidy Hartmann, said formalizing the partnership made sense.

“Of course, David runs this amazing library, but he also brings to the table the passion and commitment of a true archivist who cares deeply about the historical importance of footage and the need to preserve it. His invaluable advice to us on projects has gone way beyond just curating the footage he represents and this new partnership is a chance for us to utilize his extraordinary knowledge to create some very high-level, archive-driven projects on subjects we all love.”

Said Peck: “I have worked with Nigel and the White Horse partners on nearly a dozen projects over the last 13 years, and their almost fanatical commitment to excellence touches on my passion, which is finding, cataloging and preserving archival footage from around the globe and making it accessible to professionals in the film and television industry.”

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