Some landmarks symbolize the culture behind their existence; others have a hand in creating the culture itself. In Roger Ross Williams’ sincere documentary tribute “The Apollo,” Harlem’s iconic theater receives a generous overview of its role as a cultural hub for black entertainment and culture for close to 90 years. It’s a worthy salute to the theater’s role in sustaining African American performance art through periods of great turmoil, and provides a conduit for exploring how a beacon for black achievement functions from the inside out.
Having said that, “The Apollo” doesn’t work overtime to ask the most probing questions. It’s hard not to watch the movie without considering the issues it glosses over that might have given this absorbing chronicle more of an investigative flair. The non-fiction medium has a reigning king in this department: Documentary maestro Frederick Wiseman, whose cinematic deep-dives include the New York Library portrait “Ex Libris,” excels at contemplating the institutional DNA of revered organizations and the sheer intellectual labor involved in keeping them alive. The Apollo has certainly faced its hurdles over the years, but Williams (whose credits include the Oscar-nominated bittersweet “Life, Animated” and the devastating “God Loves Uganda”) adopts a more straightforward approach.
But “The Apollo” doesn’t need more than that to provide a platform for the many performers who have graced its stage against the tumultuous experiences of black life in America. The theater embodies the neighborhood, the neighborhood embodies a resilient people, and their creativity tells the story in its own words and songs. Williams assembles bountiful archival footage and talking heads as he tracks the growth of Harlem from “a wayward station for former slaves” to “the only game in town for African American entertainers” across many generations.
It was there that Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” at the age of 19, and James Brown proclaimed “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” cementing a legacy that would climax with his funeral on the Apollo stage decades later; where Dave Chapelle faced his first tough crowd, and Barack Obama charmed the room with a few notes of Al Green. “The Apollo” swings through clips of all these definitive moments in a breathless attempt to consolidate a dazzling timeline, and any viewer in awe of the theater — or unfamiliar with its profound history — should find much to appreciate about why they matter.
“The Apollo” also provides an engaging look at the theater’s historical roots, both through the contemporary framing device of tour guide Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell guiding pedestrians through the halls, and a more traditional overview. Williams goes back to the days of Apollo co-founder Frank Schiffman, the white entrepreneurs who first opened the theater following its downtown iteration in the early 1930s. Taking its cues from stage veterans who survived Schiffman’s scrutiny, the movie careens through his trenchant notecards, where he passed harsh judgement on the likes of Charlie Parker and Count Basie. Schiffman’s oppressive work ethic and diminutive rates don’t go unacknowledged, but they primarily illustrate the ability for the Apollo take on an identity of its own as the black community embraced its open doors.
“The Apollo” works overtime to acknowledge all the icons who have made their Apollo pilgrimages, from Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald, and comedians like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. Few receive much screen time as the documentary speeds through the highlights, but the theater programming itself emerges as the real star. Williams provides particular focus on the Apollo’s famed Amateur Night, where harsh crowds have unleashed their real-time verdicts on future stars like Lauyrn Hill. Anyone unfamiliar with this weekly talent show — which could sustain its own documentary — will want to scope it out based on the endearing moments shared here.
“The Apollo” culminates with an emotional staged reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” and features footage of rehearsals for the performance throughout the movie that include deep conversations about the very idea of black struggle. These meaningful exchanges, paired with a powerful concluding montage of Civil Rights-era strife, imbue the documentary with its most poignant conceit — as much as the theater was a temple for black culture, it also has been a sanctuary.
At times, the movie can’t shake a certain authorized quality. It zips through the low point in The Apollo’s existence, when bankruptcy led the theater to briefly close its doors in 1981, and avoids much engagement with the range of financial troubles it faces in the years after that. Michael Jackson’s Apollo history has been nearly excised from the story. Contemporary exterior shots of the theater reveal the Red Lobster and Banana Republic next door, but “The Apollo” offers no insights into the threat of gentrification or soaring real estate prices that have complicated not only Harlem’s connection to its roots but New York’s as a whole.
But “The Apollo” aims for an uplifting message and finds it. As the opening-night selection of the Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary premiered in the same theater at the center of its story, and that meta quality helped cement the movie’s purpose. Watching “The Apollo” above the same stage where so much talent has been born, experiencing its history as its doors remain open, one can see both sides of the equation. It’s still showtime at The Apollo, and while the future may be uncertain, that has never stopped it from finding reasons to rejoice in the present.
“The Apollo” premiered as the opening night selection at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. HBO will release it later this year.