(Tribeca Film Festival)
But much of what The Apollo does, and does well, is contribute to the folklore. Even casual admirers may know about rubbing the “Tree of Hope,” but when Leslie Uggams shares her memories of appearing at the Apollo as a child performer, and sharing the bill with those legends, it’s valuable – it’s important to record these stories, before their witnesses are gone themselves. And interview subjects like her have insight to add, beyond the (incredible) archival footage, particularly regarding the camaraderie and education that was happening backstage during those shows.
The picture works best when it sticks to the riveting history of the venue, and to its tricky present as a not-for-profit foundation. In Frederick Wisesman-style eavesdropping on board meetings and discussions, the parties tasked with keeping the venue alive must ask: Is it a shrine to the past or a continued presence? (The film seems to hope for the latter, and uses as its framework the theater’s 2018 staging and premiere of a live adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World & Me.)
“Our struggle is defined by our music and our art,” Williams explained in his introduction, and in trying to dramatize that big idea, his film ends up meandering a bit – there’s a lot of ground to cover, and the through-line isn’t always clear. There was always more to the Apollo when what was happening onstage, but as the film attempts to properly contextualize, it comes across, at times, like a Cliff’s Notes of the black experience in America. Yet Williams eventually pulls his strands together, with an effective and moving juxtaposition of words, images, and history in the closing moments.
In a film with plenty of moments to cheer for, one stood out: the spontaneous applause greeting the footage of Obama’s appearance on the Apollo stage in 2012 (and his acapella Al Green warble). It was a great moment, to be sure, for the theater and the film, but also a reminder of a time when the office stood for many of the same things as the venue: hope, dreams, struggle, and black excellence. And that disparity was not lost on Mr. De Niro, who (as you may have noticed) does not much care for the man currently holding the office. “In these disturbing times,” De Niro noted, “when the administration is promoting divisiveness and racism, by being here tonight, we are making a statement that we reject it.” And as the audience roared, he continued, his voice firm with the righteous anger that’s fueled so much of his best work: “No, you don’t. Not in this house. Not on this stage.”
“The Apollo” will play again on Saturday and Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival before its HBO debut this fall. The Tribeca Film Festival continues through May 5.