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The Night that James Brown Saved Boston had its world premiere at the
SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. It is scheduled to appear on VH1 on
April 5, the 40th anniversary of the event that it marks. There is
probably been no more difficult year in modern American history than
1968. There may have been no worse moment than the murder of Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968. As cities around the
country were burning, James Brown managed to prevent the chaos from
tearing apart the racial divided city of Boston.
The film documents that remarkable concert and the politics around it. Boston Mayor Kevin White and his colleagues almost by accident realized that by televising the James Brown concert they could keep people indoors that night prevent widespread rioting. The film is almost testimony to the power of music in general and the power of James Brown's music in particular. The film is a tribute to the Godfather of Soul and the role he would come to play in working for civil rights.
This is a film that should be seen by students everywhere in an effort to understand one of the more dramatic moments in history of a great American city. James Brown may be gone, but his music and his contributions will live on forever.
I am a fan of James Brown - his concert in the Streetsville Arena near
Toronto on the night of the great blackout was a highlight on my youth
- so I found this film informative and delightful. It's a great way for
people who never his saw his show as it was back in those days to get
an idea of what it might have been like. His "big show" approach, with
smooth, scripted emceeing, warmup acts, comedy, everything done with
near military precision, paved the way for the big concerts of today.
In fact, a lot of shows today look awfully loosey-goosey compared to
his. But the film focuses on the social significance of that show in
Boston, which kept potential rioters off the streets in order to watch
a special broadcast of the James Brown show live on television.
It's said he was working for the higher good. Well, JB often did, but the film makes clear on this night that he was ready to turn his back; he wasn't going to do his part to help calm the city unless he was paid his full going rate. And the shame of the city of Boston is that, according to a member of the JB team, they only paid part of the fee. They should have paid it ten time over, considering the destruction he almost certainly saved the city from.
Not every moment of the film is riveting, but it's well worth watching, leaving you with some interesting thoughts about the importance of music.
In the days following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King,
America's cities burnt with rage as riots and mass destruction of
property broke out. On the 5th April 1968, James Brown was due to
perform at the Garden a concert that the local authorities considered
cancelling in case the bringing together of a large African American
crowd in one place would cause trouble to break out. Instead the
decision was taken to televise the concert for all to see, with the
goal of not only keeping people in their homes but also giving the
Mayor the opportunity to present a message of peace and unity. This
documentary looks back at this moment in rock history, looking at the
politics behind the scenes, the money issues and the various
At its core this is an interesting documentary by virtue of covering a small moment in music history that I wasn't aware of. The first 30-40 minutes of this film covers the situation in America, the bloodshed and violence that was occurring in response to King's murder and then moves to Boston where more of the same is expected. It then tells the story of how the James Brown concert not only kept people in their homes and distracted them from rioting but also shows how he was able to step in and stop something happening between the audience and the police who were in attendance at the Garden itself. While the title of the documentary is a proud boast perhaps, the substance in this section does rather back it up.
The remainder of the film goes on to look at the significance of Brown generally thereafter; who he threw his name behind politically, the power he had to influence the African American community and so on. This section is not as good because it seems like the makers felt they had to go beyond the "night" of the title but that they didn't really have the time or inclination to go deep with it so it feels more like a general rock tribute rather than giving us specific facts and exploring them. This also sort of happens in the first half too, but there are enough specifics in the story to prevent this in the telling at least but what is missing is discussion or debate around it. So some very obvious talking points are barely touched the most obvious being that Boston was a very racially segregated city and at the time the country was being violently split along racial lines, so was there any moral conflict in the Brown camp about the fact that his concert was essentially being used by the white man to control and subdue the black population? Was there an issue with the Mayor introducing the concert, thus making it seem even more this way? This topic is sort of mentioned once but it is never discussed and I didn't like how it was left out there. Once he is performing you can see Brown in charge and being the dominant personality but ultimately it is still a matter of the (white) system of government using music to distract a population from their understandable rage at that system and at very least the documentary should have addressed that.
There is plenty of footage from the show itself, which does pad the film out a bit but it pads it out in a good way I guess. It still should have either been a shorter film or a better film. If it had been shorter it would have been a tight focus on the night in question and not worried too much about beyond. Alternatively it could have been a bit longer but would have needed to be better; there are lots of issues it ignores and when it moves onto the cultural significance of James Brown in the wake of Boston, it gets very general and a little rambling.
Never as good a film as the title suggests, this is still a pretty enjoyable film because of the story at its core however as a documentary it isn't strong enough or well structured to really cut the mustard. Worth a look for the history in the first half, but beyond that it is weaker.
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