‘The Apollo’ review: Black music legends reveal humiliations, triumphs

On Wednesday, the 18th Tribeca Film Festival kicked off with “The Apollo” — at the Apollo.

The documentary explores the historic landmark where black music legends, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington to James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, found a home in Harlem.

“For 85 years, some of the greatest talents in history played this stage,” director Roger Ross Williams tells The Post at the premiere.

Six years in the making, the documentary tells the stories behind the famous stage where icons would be born and amateurs would be booed.

One of the most remarkable moments recounts how a 17-year-old Fitzgerald had originally planned to dance during the first year of Amateur Night in 1934, but after seeing the Edwards Sisters tear up the stage with their moves, she decided to sing instead.

In a turn of events that changed music history, Fitzgerald sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” burst into her signature scatting — and took home first prize.

Later, Ralph Cooper, who created and hosted Amateur Night, scouted Billie Holiday and sealed her Apollo debut with then owner Frank Schiffman. The footage captured of Lady Day singing the controversial “Strange Fruit” against Schiffman’s wishes will give you chills.

That was the kind of magic that happened on that storied stage, when the Apollo was “the only game in town in Harlem for African-American theatrical entertainment” during a time when black people couldn’t go to other places such as the Cotton Club and the Savoy.

The film chronicles how the jazz era evolved into the Motown era at the venue, with Frank Schiffman’s son, Bobby, taking ownership and copious, typewritten notes on all of the performers — and the business they brought.

Bobby Schiffman, who shares his memories throughout the documentary, ran a tight ship: He had acts doing multiple shows per day as they tried to work their way into better dressing rooms, and was tight with money.

Even the Queen of Soul wasn’t paid enough, as Franklin frankly explains in an interview.

While it was a safe place for black artists, “The Apollo” shows just how intimidating that stage could be.

“I never looked at the audience,” says Motown great Smokey Robinson, who was in attendance for last night’s premiere.

The film even captures a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill getting booed when she sang Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” on Amateur Night.

But when you weren’t losing all of your money in the backstage card games, as Patti LaBelle recalls, the black-music mecca on 125th Street was also nurturing.

“The Apollo was more like a university,” says Gladys Knight, who is interviewed along with her Pips brother Bubba Knight.

The documentary — which will premiere on HBO in October — also pays homage to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who “became synonymous with the Apollo.” Tracing his journey from pompadoured champion of the venue on 1963’s classic “Live at the Apollo” album to Afro-rocking symbol of black pride with 1968’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” it shows just why a public viewing was held at the Apollo after Brown passed away in 2006.

Legends came to be born at the Apollo — and they also came to be laid to rest.

Source: Read Full Article