‘The Apollo’ Film Review: Documentary Plumbs Legendary Harlem Theater’s Rich History

Roger Ross Williams skillfully weaves together cultural and political, past and present, in this valentine to a landmark

Last Updated: November 5, 2019 @ 12:32 PM

It feels unnatural to think of New York City without the Apollo Theater, yet more than once during the production of HBO’s “The Apollo,” Roger Ross Williams’ documentary about the Harlem landmark, the doors were in danger of closing for good.

That’s just one of many stories you’ll discover watching this exhaustive compendium of archival riches and fond first-person memories by many of the audience regulars, the star-studded acts who graced its stage, and some of the hopefuls still looking to be a part of the Apollo’s history.

Throughout “The Apollo,” Williams vacillates between the theater’s past and present, thematically connecting how some things have changed while others have stayed the same. Through the testimonies of historians and academics, as well as first-hand accounts, the director traces the history of the Apollo as one of the few venues that allowed Black performers not only on stage but also in the seats. Even at the height of the Harlem Renaissance and the heyday of the Cotton Club, the Apollo was one of the few desegregated spots in the city.

The theater quickly became a bastion for the burgeoning Harlem neighborhood growing around it on 125th Street, and it would solidify its place in the community (and in some ways, the global stage) when in 1934 the theater began its wildly successful amateur nights, a tradition that still takes place every Wednesday night. In one of its narrative threads, the documentary briefly follows one of the many hopefuls who dreams of making her debut at the Apollo.

In addition the oral history and backstage stories, Williams brings in other voices, like those of Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, to contextualize further the time in which the Apollo was establishing its artistic legacy. There are also ties to New York’s history, especially when revisiting the city’s hard-scrabble bankrupt years in the ’70s and ’80s. By then, show business had changed: Venues had gotten bigger, Black artists and audiences could go to any theater in town, and the demand for the Apollo dipped enough almost to close its doors for good.

The archival footage on display in “The Apollo” is a real treat. Legends from all eras smile under the theater’s bright lights, although the edits are sometimes too fast to recognize everyone, especially some of the earlier, less well-known acts. The headliners change (as does the footage and video quality that captured them in their prime), creating a sense of history rushing by the screen.

There’s probably a multi-part documentary series that could be built out of all that footage that zips by, from Ella Fitzgerald regally singing at the mic to a young Lauryn Hill bombing on amateur night. There’s almost too much talent to name: Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Hines, James Brown, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Gladys Knight, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Smokey Robinson, Patti Labelle, Pharrell Williams and Barack Obama, among many, many more.

Further connecting the past to the present, “The Apollo” sits in on one of the more contemporary productions, a live performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ acclaimed book, “Between the World and Me.” His words, like those of many Black artists before him, reflect on the past and look towards the future. His descriptive language detailing police brutality to his son matches the images on-screen of a not-so-distant history of cops beating Black people protesting in the street or sitting at lunch counters.

Coates touches on the same notes of grief that moved Billie Holiday to debut “Strange Fruit” at the Apollo against the managers’ wishes and the pride with which James Brown declared on the same stage, “I’m Black, and I’m proud.” Although the transitions between past and present aren’t always flawless, they are constantly in conversation with one another. Director of photography Michael Dwyer (“Pavarotti”) captures the present-day interviews and behind-the-scenes side of the Apollo and connects them with Williams’ assemblage of the place’s history.

Few theaters can boast the stories the Apollo has to share, and the history buff in me always wanted to hear more than what made the final cut. As a documentary,”The Apollo” is an illustrative tour through its hallowed backstage, its history and an exploration into its current mission as a cultural institution. It’s a place whose present will always be tied to its past and to how we preserve that history for future generations.

“The Apollo” premieres Nov. 6 at 9 PM on HBO.

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