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.
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 Schillman, 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.