David Leaf, who has specialized in limning fuzzy corners of 1960s rock history, has produced a winner on the days that followed the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the effect James Brown had on black America, particularly in keeping the peace in Boston. “The Night James Brown Saved Boston” goes beyond a simple chronology of events: It reaches deep into the racially based fear that complicated a segregated city and also chronicles the potholes Brown had to navigate to keep the peace in the wake of catastrophe.
Exceptional footage from the B&W telecast of Brown’s famous performance at Boston Garden two days after King was shot forms the backbone of the story, which plays out in the memories of Boston politicians, members of Brown’s band and a couple of concertgoers who would later become rock scribes. Talking heads weigh in as well, among them the Rev. Al Sharpton speaking for his late friend and Cornel West, who has an astute angle on what it meant to be black and powerful in 1968. Politicos, meanwhile, are captured revealing biases and an insensitivity to racial relations.
As he did in “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” Leaf draws a sociological road map with archival footage, this time summing up America’s racial divide. The early focus is on King’s life; Brown enters the picture after Boston’s mayor, Kevin White, mulls the idea of canceling Brown’s concert at Boston Garden, scheduled for the next evening. The fear was that Boston’s black population, centered in Roxbury, about five miles southwest of City Hall, would riot in the North End. White’s logic was off: Rioters in other cities were burning their own neighborhoods.
The only black member of the city council, Tom Atkins, persuaded White to let the concert take place and was instantly put in the role of liaison between the city and Brown. There was a caveat, though — the concert had to be televised to keep people in their homes.
When news that the show would be aired on WGBH — which knew nothing about popular music or how to broadcast it and even referred to the star attraction as “negro singer Jimmy Brown and his group,” — ticket holders started lining up for refunds. Word reached Brown, and he was furious, as was his manager Charles Bobbit; negotiations led to the city agreeing to pony up $60,000 for the show. The two sides disagree on whether that money was ever paid.
Brown had been in a New York recording studio when riots broke out, and he had appeared on television asking for peace. He went to Harlem on his own to witness the looting, destruction and police brutality. In the concert footage, we see his negotiating skills at work assuaging concertgoers and the police that no one wants any trouble.
Interesting questions arise from Brown doing what some considered the government’s dirty work, key among them whether he had become a sellout. The question would dog him as traveled to perform for the troops in Vietnam, made friends with then-VP Hubert Humphrey and eventually endorsed Richard Nixon’s re-election.
His response, his supporters say, is in the music, especially on records such as “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
“James Brown,” like Leaf’s works on Brian Wilson and John Lennon, was created with the cooperation of the subject and/or estate, which has provided him with some boffo footage. The concert, natch, is a high point, but there’s also Brown visiting impoverished youth and Vietnam. Brown’s band members, especially Jab’o Starks and Fred Wesley, reflect on the night from the one perspective that required fearlessness — being James Brown — and their stories, along with Bobbit’s recollections, flesh out another under-reported chapter from the life of an American original.
Copy reviewed is the 90-minute version Leaf screened at the SXSW Music festival in Austin last month and will be released as a DVD by Shout Factory.