As a former NYC-based researcher and associate producer at VH1, I was a bit apprehensive when I first heard about the new Rock Doc called "The Night James Brown Saved Boston."
I waited to watch the tighter, VH1 version of the documentary in its entirety tonight before commenting and, after sitting in awe for an hour, I’m pleased to say the work is a stunning achievement of narrative storytelling.
The documentary focuses on the night of April 5, 1968. Race riots were erupting throughout the country and Boston, a deeply segregating urban enclave at the time where African-American Bostonians primarily lived in Roxbury and the South End, was on edge the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Brown's concert on April 5 was on the verge of cancellation because the new mayor of Boston, Kevin H. White, thought it would exacerbate an already inflammatory situation. Also, politicos were afraid that the Boston Garden concert would erupt into a violent, emotional outburst.
Instead of canceling the concert, White decided to televise the show on WGBH, Channel 2. Whether the decision to air the Brown performance actually saved Boston from burning is debatable, however, David Leaf’s account of the event is storytelling at its best.
Not only does Leaf effectively use first-person accounts of that fateful night including recollections from former mayor White and city councilman Tom Atkins but he intersperses commentary from critical thinkers like Al Sharpton, music journalist Tom Vickers, Princeton University’s Dr. Cornel West and Northeastern’s Dr. Robert Hall.
Brown, who passed away in 2006 due to complications from pneumonia, is featured in the documentary via audio interviews, rare news footage and highlights from the actual 1968 WGBH telecast.
James "Early" Byrd, the first black DJ in the Boston market, added some interesting insider information. "If that concert didn’t happen," Byrd says, "we would have had the biggest problem since the Boston Tea Party."
As someone who once specialized in acquiring archival footage for VH1, I was blown away by the news clips filmmaker Leaf was able to find for "The Night James Brown Saved Boston." One clip, pulled from the Channel 2 performance, shows how Brown quelled a potentially combustible situation when a group of kids stormed the stage.
Leaf, who is known for "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," will release the full 74-minute documentary of "The Night James Brown Saved Boston" in August. After watching the 45-minute version on VH1 tonight, I will be the first in line to buy the DVD.