Depending on your generation, Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater could signify itself as a home to jazz, rhythm and blues and soul music or hip hop. But the famed 125th Street theater has served as more than just a venue for emerging African American culture and music, it has also served as a socio-political center as well, a welcoming space for Harlem residents to convene during times of tumult. Director Roger Ross Williams manages to encapsulate that rich history in the new documentary titled simply The Apollo.
First opening its doors in 1934, the Apollo Theater first served as a venue where African-Americans who lived in Harlem could spend an evening listening to jazz or seeing stage acts that spoke to their own day-to-day experiences. Beyond that though, as the stature of the venue grew over time, the Apollo served as a place of comfort and a rallying point for change for the residents of the neighborhood as social changes swept across the breadth of the 20th century. But its influence extends far beyond a few surrounding blocks’ radius, seeping across and into not just black culture but all of popular culture itself.
Williams constructs the film’s narrative along a spine that follows the preparation of the premier of a staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me, a work that stands firmly in that intersection between culture and politics. A fitting given that the Apollo has certainly been a recorder and presenter of nearly nine decades of the often turbulent African-American experience. The Apollo is the stage where Billie Holiday sang the haunting “Strange Fruit.” It was where James Brown intoned “I’m black and I’m proud” and NWA chanted “Fuck the police!” But it should also be remembered that Barack Obama was the first President of the United States to ever tread the boards at the Apollo.
Williams has loaded the film with numerous clips of performances from the Apollo’s decades-long history. The likes of Louis Armstrong, Slim and Slam and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers intermingle with Gladys Knight and the Pips and Red Foxx, Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor and the Fugees and Public Enemy, creating a continuum of artists from a number of disciplines and genres from over the years. And like all good showman or storyteller, Williams presents just enough of each act to leave us wanting to see the performance in full.
The film takes a few moments to explore the impact that the Apollo’s Amateur Night – which the theater promotes as the longest running talent competition ever – has had on forging new artists in its admittedly raucous crucible. (One talking head refers to this as “The power of the ‘Boo!'”) Thirteen-year-old Lauryn Hill may not have done well at an Amateur Night, but she would take the Apollo’s stage again years later as a member of the popular R&B act The Fugees. It is that promise that still keeps performers from across the country coming to 125th Street for their own shot at stardom on its stage.
But while The Apollo does a good job of exploring the theater’s history as well as its impact on its neighborhood and the larger African American community itself, when it gets to its present, the documentary becomes disappointingly vague. The theater is currently being run as a non-profit, though gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood seems to have made it harder for the historic site to make ends meet. Though I will concede that exploring that would end the documentary on a somewhat down note after it has spent the previous hour and a half celebrating the Apollo’s incredible history, it would be interesting to see how the theater is preparing for the challenges of tomorrow.