Tribeca Opens at The Apollo

Roger Ross Williams’s The Apollo (2019)

The eighteenth edition of the Tribeca Film Festival has opened with cofounder Robert De Niro taking another potshot at the president during his introduction of the opening night film. “In this administration,” De Niro said, “during these disturbing times of promoting racism, tonight, we reject it. No you don’t, not here, not on this stage.” That stage was the Apollo, the Harlem theater that became a thriving locus of black culture when what had been a whites-only venue reopened to black patrons in 1934. From jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to the Godfather and Queen of Soul, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, to headlining comedians like Richard Pryor and  Dave Chapelle to more recent superstars such as Prince, the most important figures in black entertainment all played at the Apollo. That rich history is documented in Roger Ross Williams’s festival opener, The Apollo, and Variety’s Owen Gleiberman finds it “bracing and moving” in the way that it flows “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 separate them.”

The Apollo, also warmly received by Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), Eric Kohn (IndieWire), and Keith Uhlich (Hollywood Reporter), is one of ten music documentaries that Variety’s Jem Aswad and Chris Willman have been looking forward to catching at Tribeca. Their string of capsule previews includes notes on films about Linda Ronstadt,Wu-Tang Clan, former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman,D’Angelo, the late INXS singer Michael Hutchence, and Phish lead vocalist and guitarist Trey Anastasio. Naturally, Rolling Stone’s list of twenty-five anticipated screenings is also heavy on music docs, but it includes a few fiction features as well, such as Andrew Ahn’s follow-up to Spa Night (2016). Driveways focuses on the unlikely friendship between a young boy and a “cantankerous old war veteran.”

The batch of previews to start with, though, is Scott Macaulay’s at Filmmaker, where his selections include not only features but also shorts, virtual reality experiences, talks, and immersive theater works. Macaulay has been talking with Tribeca’s programmers, and his list of twenty-nine programs is laced with a few of their insiders’ tips. One of the most promising features in the U.S. narrative competition looks to be Burning Cane, set in southeastern Louisiana, directed by nineteen-year-old Phillip Youmans, executive produced by Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), and starring Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme) as a preacher struggling with alcoholism.

Throughout these lists and others from Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times and the staffs at IndieWire, the Playlist,ScreenAnarchy, Variety, and Women and Hollywood, a few recurring titles are natural magnets to the eyes of anyone tracking news from the world of film each day. Abel Ferrera’s The Projectionist is a profile of Nicolas Nicolaou, a theater owner who, as Rolling Stone’s David Fear points out, has used “a porn house to literally keep arthouses in business.” Midge Costin’s doc on sound designers, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, “features interviews with everyone from David Lynch and Ryan Coogler to Ben Burtt and Barbra Streisand so that viewers can truly hear Costin’s message,” notes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. And Kenigsberg writes that, in You Don’t Nomi, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) “continues its journey toward full reclamation with this pleasingly wonkish, clip-heavy deconstruction from Jeffrey McHale.”

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