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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Posted April 25th, 2019

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.

Official Site:

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.

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