Review: ‘Cassandro,’ starring Gael García Bernal

October 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gael García Bernal in “Cassandro” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)


Directed by Roger Ross Williams

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico, from 1988 to 1993, the dramatic film “Cassandro” (based on a true story) features a predominantly Latin cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Openly gay wrestler Saúl Armendáriz changes his name to Cassandro, and he becomes a wrestling star, but he faces challenges inside and outside the ring because of his sexuality.

Culture Audience: “Cassandro” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Gael García Bernal and anyone interested in unique stories about wrestlers.

Gael García Bernal and Perla De La Rosa in “Cassandro” (Photo by Alejandro Lopez Pineda/Amazon Content Services)

The dramatic film “Cassandro” isn’t a comprehensive biopic because it only focuses on a period time when luchador Cassandro (whose real name is Saúl Armendáriz) had a career that was on the rise. Even though Gael García Bernal doesn’t look like the real Cassandro, he does a pretty good job of embodying his essence. This lucha libre biopic isn’t as interesting as the documentary “Cassandro, the Exotico!,” but it’s a fairly compelling drama.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams (who co-wrote the “Cassandro” screenplay with David Teague) “Cassandro” glosses over or leaves out some things that were in the 2019 documentary “Cassandro, the Exotico!,” which told much more of Cassandro’s life story. The dramatic film “Cassandro” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is more like a few chapters in a biography. Bernal’s performance is the main reason to watch, because some of the movie gets repetitive.

The real Cassandro was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. As an adult, he relocated to Mexico, where he made his name as a luchador. His birth year was 1970, and the “Cassandro” movie takes place from 1988 to approximately 1993, when he was in his late teens and early 20s. Bernal was born in 1978, which means that he was in his early 40s when he made “Cassandro” but portraying someone who is supposed to be in his late teens and early 20s. Bernal is also much thinner than the stocky Cassandro, and their faces have no resemblance to each other.

Despite these discrepancies in physical appearance and age, Bernal immerses himself in the character of Cassandro. People who know what the real Cassandro looks like might not be able to get past how different Bernal looks from the real Cassandro. However, for those who can appreciate seeing a wrestling movie with good acting, there’s plenty to like about “Cassandro.”

The movie is told in chronological order and begins in a dressing room before a wrestling match. Cassandro, whose wrestling persona at the time was wearing a mask, is being taunted by the wrestler who will be his opponent in the ring: a brute named Gigántico (played by real-life wrestler Murder Clown), who is nearly twice the size of Cassandro.

“Do you like digging holes, or do you like getting your hole dug?” Gigántico asks Cassandro. Cassandro then places a photo of his mother Yocasta (played by Perla De La Rosa) on his dressing room table. Gigántico then tells Cassandro: “You should take off your mask and become an exotico.” (An exotico is a luchador who dresses in drag or wears heavy makeup un wrestling matches and does exaggerated moves that are meant to depict someone who is a flamboyant gay man.)

Gigántico continues to needle Cassandro: “What’s with the shitty moustache?” Cassandro answers, “I grew it for you, honey. I heard you like the way it tickles.” Cassandro loses the match against Gigántico. And then, Cassandro is even more disappointed when he hears he has to fight Gigántico again in Cassandro’s next match.

At the time, Cassandro is on the low end of the professional wrestling hierarchy. Like most athletes, he wants to become a champion. As luck would have it, Cassandro finds the trainer he needs. She’s a wrestler named Sabrina (played by Roberta Colindrez), who uses the wrestler name Lady Anarquía.

Sabrina has been observing Cassandro for a while and has become an admirer who thinks Cassandro has a lot of potential. When she offers to train Cassandro, he tells her he won’t be able to afford what she charges. Sabrina replies, “Don’t worry about it.”

Saúl/Cassandro is very close to his mother Yocasta and is unapologetic about being a “mama’s boy.” Yocasta, who works as a housekeeper/maid, is accepting of Saúl/Cassandro being openly gay. The movie shows that Yocasta gets some prejudice from two maid co-workers who make derogatory remarks about Yocasta being a single mother of an illegitimate son.

Saúl/Cassandro is estranged from his religious father Eduardo (played by Robert Salas), who does not accept Saúl/Cassandro being gay. Saúl/Cassandro and Eduardo have not seen each other since Saúl/Cassandro came out as gay when he was 15 years old. Eduardo and Saúl/Cassandro later have a conversation, which is one of the best scenes in the movie.

The movie alternates between showing Cassandro’s rise as an exotico in the lucha libre circuit and showing things that happen in his personal life. He starts using cocaine with a drug buddy named Felipe (played by Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, also known as music star Bad Bunny), who seems to be sexually attracted to Cassandro, but Felipe (who has a girlfriend) presents himself to the world as being heterosexual.

Cassandro has a more emotional connection to a fellow wrestler named Gerardo (played by Raúl Castillo), who is married to a woman and has two underage kids with her. Cassandro briefly met Gerardo’s wife and kids when he and Yocasta were at a diner and happened to see Gerado and his family at a nearby table. Soon after Cassandro and Gerardo meet each other, they have a secretive romance. But considering that Gerardo is deeply closeted and has no intention of leaving his wife, it’s easy to predict what will happen to the affair that he’s having with Cassandro.

“Cassandro” shows glimpses of the business wheeling and dealing that takes place in lucha libra industry. Cassandro’s agent/booker is Lorenzo (played by Joaquín Cosío), who introduced Felipe to Cassandro. Lorenzo’s ethics are very murky, since he knows and almost encourages Felipe to supply Cassandro with cocaine. Cassandro experiences a lot of homophobia from people in the wrestling industry and in the general public, but Lorenzo doesn’t seem to care too much, as long as Cassandro is making money for Lorenzo.

Because “Cassandro” takes place over an approximate five-year period, which consists of Cassandro’s earliest years as a pro wrestler, it’s not depicted in the movie how Cassandro’s cocaine addiction escalates and nearly ruins his life and career. This part of Cassandro’s life story is in “Cassandro the Exotico!” documentary. Perhaps the filmmakers of “Cassandro” didn’t want to do a typical “rise-fall-comeback” story arc that is often used in celebrity biopics, but it still feels like the movie doesn’t have a realistic portrayal of the down sides of Cassandro’s cocaine addiction.

“Cassandro” has some areas that come across as a bit dull and too talkative. The wrestling scenes are entertaining, but the movie’s most emotionally resonant moments happen outside the ring. The mother/son relationship that Cassandro and Yocasta have is enjoyable to watch. However, the character of Sabrina seems underdeveloped in the movie, which makes her dialogue quite generic. Even when the movie has some weak moments of banality, Bernal carries the movie with emotional authenticity and charisma.

Amazon Studios released “Cassandro” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023. Prime Video premiered the movie on September 22, 2023.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Apollo’

April 25, 2019

by Carla Hay

The Apollo
(Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Apollo”

Directed by Roger Ross Williams

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 24, 2019.

The legendary Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood has been around since 1934, and there is now finally a definitive documentary film about the venue’s legacy and lasting impact on culture. “The Apollo,” directed by Roger Ross Williams, skillfully manages the enormous task of taking all of the Apollo’s rich and complicated history and making it into a cohesive and fascinating story. The movie begins and ends with the Apollo’s 2018 world premiere of the stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” his 2015 award-winning non-fiction book about what it means to be a black person in America. Angela Bassett and Common were among the entertainers who starred in the production.

The Apollo—which became a U.S. and New York City landmark in 1983—has hosted numerous actors, dancers, comedians and other entertainers, but the music artists are the ones who shine the brightest in the documentary. The archival footage in the film is breathtaking to watch, as it’s a thrilling reminder that virtually all of the most influential black entertainers from the 1930s onward have performed at the Apollo. The list reads like a who’s who of black culture: Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Gladys Knight, and every major star who’s been on Motown Records, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. Frank Schiffman, the original owner of the Apollo, is described as a ruthless businessman who saw the Apollo as an opportunity to provide an important showcase for black artists, beginning when these artists were shut out of “whites only” establishments. People of all races have performed at the Apollo, but this documentary focuses on black entertainers, in keeping with the Apollo’s original intention to be a venue primarily to showcase black talent.

Anyone familiar with the Apollo already knows about its famous “Amateur Night” talent contest (which was the brainchild of longtime Apollo emcee Ralph Cooper), but the documentary gives some insight into what you might not know: Cooper kept extensive notes (many of which are shown in the movie) on each performer from “Amateur Night,” as well as the established artists who graced the stage of the Apollo. The documentary includes footage of several “Amateur Nights” over the years (including a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill’s first Apollo performance in 1987, when she was booed on stage while singing the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You”), as well as more recent behind-the-scenes and on-stage footage of aspiring entertainers. Several people in the documentary note that the Apollo audience is notoriously hard to please, so getting a standing ovation from the crowd is a badge of honor for any entertainer. The TV show “Showtime at the Apollo” (formerly known as “It’s Showtime at the Apollo”) is the long-running series that has highlights from the Apollo’s “Amateur Night.”

Jamie Foxx, who is interviewed in the film, also noted that many black comedians felt at home at the Apollo because they could be their uncensored selves and not have to worry about watering down their stand-up acts. The documentary includes footage of comedians such as Foxx, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Chris Rock and Dick Gregory. Singer/actress Leslie Uggams, who began performing at the Apollo at the age of 9, shares some fond backstage memories in the documentary. She remembered that Ella Fitzgerald was always offering people food backstage, while Dinah Washington would generously dole out $100 bills to performers who were down on their luck.

The documentary also shows that the Apollo, much like black culture in America, is a story of resilience in the face of difficult obstacles. The Apollo’s relatively small capacity of about 1,500 people made it increasingly difficult for the venue to stay in business, and it temporarily closed in 1976, after filing for bankruptcy. Even when Inner City Broadcasting chief Percy Sutton bought the Apollo in 1983, making him the Apollo’s first black owner, the business still found it difficult to make a profit. In 1991, the state of New York bought the Apollo, which is now run by the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation.

Even though the Apollo has long been considered a prestigious venue for black artists, it’s also a place that took risks and booked entertainers who were embroiled in controversy. Pharrell Williams and Doug E. Fresh give interviews in the documentary about how the Apollo was one of the first major venues in the United States to offer a major stage platform for hip-hop artists, including those such as Public Enemy and N.W.A, who would frequently speak out against the police in their songs. The Apollo also booked Billie Holiday at a time when her song “Strange Fruit” was considered offensive to many Southern people. Bobby Schiffman, Frank Schiffman’s son who inherited the Apollo until the venue filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1976, tells a story in the documentary about Eartha Kitt being afraid for her life to perform at the Apollo in 1960, because she had recently married a white man, and had been getting death threats from white and black people. But she won over the crowd, and Schiffman said it turned out to be one of her best performances, as well as a lesson for the Apollo that great entertainment on stage could triumph over any controversy going on outside the venue.

That’s not to say that the Apollo has been unaffected by social and political events. The documentary also puts everything into historical context, from the Apollo’s earliest years in the era of legal segregation, to the civil rights movements of the 1960s, to the rise of “black power” ideology in the 1970s to the influence of hip-hop culture in the 1980s and beyond. The message of the movie is that whatever has been an important historical touchstone for African-Americans from the 1930s and beyond—whether it was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. or Shirley Chisholm running for president of the United States or the Black Lives Matter movement—the Apollo’s audiences and the entertainment on stage have been affected. The documentary also points out that the Apollo is also one of the first places that people go to for memorials when black icons die. The documentary includes footage of Apollo memorials after the deaths of Brown, Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Prince.

Even with all the superstar entertainers who have graced the stage at the Apollo, one guest remains a special favorite: Barack Obama, who became the first sitting U.S. president to do an on-stage presentation at the Apollo. The documentary includes footage of that 2012 appearance, as well as of Obama backstage. If you visit the Apollo, longtime Apollo tour guide Billy Mitchell—also known as Mr. Apollo—might show you the wall of autographs that include Obama’s signature and those of many other celebrities. (There’s footage of Mitchell giving a tour in the documentary too.)

“The Apollo” is an expertly told story that does justice to the Apollo and the people who made the venue great. The only downside is that the movie will eventually become outdated as future legends will make their own history by performing on the Apollo stage. Until there’s a sequel or updated film, this documentary will stand as the most comprehensive visual story about the Apollo.

UPDATE: HBO will premiere “The Apollo” on November 6, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival: ‘The Apollo’ documentary is the event’s opening-night film

February 13, 2019

The Apollo Theater in New York City's Harlem
The Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The following is a press release from the Tribeca Film Festival:

The Tribeca Film Festival, presented by AT&T, will open its 18th edition with the world premiere of director Roger Ross Williams and HBO’s new documentary film “The Apollo.” Helmed by the Oscar and Emmy-winning Williams (“Music by Prudence”; “Life, Animated”), The Apollo chronicles the unique history and contemporary legacy of the New York City landmark, the Apollo Theater. The film will debut at the iconic theater itself on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 and later this year on HBO. The feature-length documentary weaves together archival footage, music, comedy, and dance performances, and behind-the-scenes moments with the team that makes the theater run.

“The Apollo” features interviews with artists like Patti LaBelle, Pharrell Williams, Smokey Robinson, and Jamie Foxx. The film is produced by Lisa Cortés (“Precious”), White Horses Pictures’ Nigel Sinclair (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” “Undefeated”), Jeanne Elfant Festa (“Foo Fighters: Back and Forth,” “Pavarotti”), Cassidy Hartmann (“The Beatles: Eight Days A Week,” “Pavarotti”), and Williams. The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24 through May 5.

The documentary covers the rich history of the storied performance space over its 85 years and follows a new production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as it comes to the theater’s grand stage. The creation of this vibrant multi-media stage show frames the way in which “The Apollo” explores the current struggle of black lives in America, the role that art plays in that struggle, and the broad range of African-American achievement that the Apollo Theater represents.

The Apollo Theater is internationally renowned for having influenced American and pop culture more than any other entertainment venue. The space has created opportunities for new talent to be seen and has served as a launchpad for a myriad of artists, including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Luther Vandross, Dave Chappelle, Lauryn Hill, Jimi Hendrix, and more.

“We’re excited to finally be going uptown to play the Apollo,” said Jane Rosenthal, co-founder and CEO of the Tribeca Film Festival. “’The Apollo’ gives audiences an inside look at the major role this institution has played for the past 85 years. It’s seen the emergence of everything from jazz to R&B to soul and gospel — all quintessential American music genres — and this is the time to remind people of our nation’s rich history. ”

“’The Apollo’ is about so much more than just music, it’s about how we used music and art to lift ourselves out of oppression,” commented Williams. “The story of the Apollo is the story of the evolution of black American identity and how it grew to become the defining cultural movement of our time. I was fortunate to make my first film with HBO and I am thrilled to be coming back home with The Apollo. Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem is a dream come true.”

“The Apollo Theater is a symbol of the creative spirit of New York and beyond, and I’m very happy that we’re kicking off our 18th Festival celebrating it with this documentary from Roger Ross Williams,” said Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro.

An outstanding creative team has been assembled for “The Apollo,” including editors Jean Tsien, ACE (“Miss Sharon Jones!,” “Shut Up & Sing”) and John S. Fisher, as well as Grammy-Award-winning musician Robert Glasper (“Miles Ahead,” “13th”) who is composing the score. Hartmann and Tsien also serve as co-writers on the documentary.

“The Apollo” will have additional screenings during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Passes and packages to attend the festival go on sale on February 19th, 2019 and can be accessed here.

The 2019 Tribeca Film Festival will announce its feature film slate on March 5th.

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