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.’”
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)