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 to 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 it 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.