The Night James Brown Saved Boston
Dir. David Leaf
Bookended by the entirety of James Brown’s 1968 Boston Garden extravaganza and a March 1968 concert at The Apollo in Harlem, I Got the Feelin’ collects two of Brown’s most electrifying performances in one set. But it’s the inclusion of the documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston that transforms the three-DVD set from a fan’s wet dream into a piece of musical history.
The Night James Brown Saved Boston focuses on the April 5, 1968 performance from the Boston Garden, one night after the tragic murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Framed by the accounts of the people who helped to bring the concert to a city on the edge of mass rioting, the documentary gets to the center of that legendary evening, inside and outside of The Garden. Rarely does a concert supersede the purpose of simple entertainment, but without the sacrifices of James Brown, the city of Boston could have well seen the same fate that griped Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and the host of large American cities engulfed in chaos following Rev. King’s assassination.
But it’s not the heroic praise heaped upon Brown that drives The Night James Brown Saved Boston, it’s how African-American figureheads such as Dr. Cornel West and Rev. Al Sharpton make it clear that, despite his many shortcomings, James Brown did what was best for himself and his perceived community after Martin Luther King Jr.’s passing. We’re privy to Brown’s greed as Boston’s mayor and first black council member discuss how much money the singer was demanding for the show, since most of the Boston Garden’s anticipated crowd chose to seek refunds to watch the show from the comfort of their own homes. We’re given insight into the differences of opinion between James Brown and Dr. King; Brown believed in the Biblical adage "an eye for an eye" in the face of Dr. King’s continued preaching and practicing of non-violence. Brown grew to accept their differences, even embracing King’s philosophy after the leader's death to maintain peace in the African-America boroughs that were erupting in violence.
Much of the documentary focuses on the performance at the Garden. We see tensions rise as the audience bombards the stage at the height of Brown’s finale, yet cooler heads prevail as the singer is able to end any rising anger simply by being himself. All the while, we’re treated to clips from the show, growing our hunger to see the performance ourselves, to witness the televised program as Boston saw it during that fateful evening. Thankfully, I Got the Feelin’ delivers.
The set’s second disc features the entire Boston Garden performance exactly as it aired. As with any James Brown concert or recording, the Godfather of Soul seemingly transcends not only race and time but also the constraints of television screens and inadequate speakers. The camera work from the public television crew isn’t the greatest; neither is the sound, as the crew had only ever worked the Boston Pops and Philharmonic performances. But this is a piece of history — watching it unfold as it happened draws eyes, ears, hearts, and minds into every note. It’s not about bringing the audience state-of-the-art picture and sound quality; it’s about putting the audience in the moment and allowing them to experience it for themselves. This isn’t musical preservation; it is historical re-enactment.
Summing up James Brown’s late-‘60s influence in three DVDs is near impossible, but I Got the Feelin’ comes as close as anything else to date. The Night James Brown Saved Boston delivers much-needed insight into Brown’s transformation from soul’s reigning king into a social and political figurehead. Yet I Got the Feelin’ never forgets that James Brown’s greatest contribution to society was his craft.