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The Night James Brown Saved Boston
David Leaf’s latest film explores how James Brown was able to diffuse racial tension in the city of Boston in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Charles Thomson met the director...
July 2008, Wax Poetics

On April 5th 1968, James Brown walked onstage at the Boston Garden Arena, shielded his eyes from the glaring spotlights and peered out over a sea of empty seats. Around 1,500 people stood huddled at the front of the 15,000 capacity arena. With tension in the air and such a poor turnout, this looked like a disastrous night for Brown – a write off – and several of his entourage feared for his safety. Little did anybody know, this would become the defining night of Brown’s career.

It was the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination and riots had engulfed the Unites States. After a long night of civil unrest in the ghettos of Boston, the city council was looking to James Brown to bring peace to its citizens. A new film tells the story behind one of the most significant nights in black music history.

‘The Night James Brown Saved Boston’ is the latest offering from acclaimed filmmaker David Leaf, the man behind ‘The US Vs John Lennon’. The Emmy-nominated director leapt at the chance to direct the film when it was suggested in 2006 by long-time friend and collaborator, ‘Shout Factory’ boss Richard Foos.

“Richard told me he was in the early stages of putting together a DVD of the Boston Garden concert and asked me if I wanted to make a documentary to go alongside it," he recalls. "I was so excited I almost jumped through the telephone!”

But the production was blighted by a series of potentially devastating setbacks, which began on Christmas Day 2006 when James Brown died of congestive heart failure.

“Under ideal circumstances, James Brown would have been the focal point of the story-telling – we would have seen it all through his eyes. I wanted him to tell the story like I had John and Yoko tell the story in ‘The U.S. Vs John Lennon’, through contemporary and archive interview footage.”

When Brown passed away the film’s future hung in the balance. Without permission from the James Brown Estate, Leaf’s documentary could not go ahead - and consent was not immediately forthcoming. Although the wait was long and tense, Leaf says he understood the Estate’s reticence.

“When you approach a star’s family or estate you are essentially saying to them, ‘I am going to document one of the most significant periods of your loved one’s life, and I want you to trust me to make a good job of it.’ That’s a huge thing to ask, so it is understandable that they would take some time to think it over.”

Awaiting permission was not the only obstacle Leaf and his team would have to overcome. As soon as that box was ticked they found themselves facing another nightmare situation – the company that owned the concert footage was none too enthusiastic about handing over the rights.

“There were times when I thought it would never get made,” he sighs. “But in life I have found that it is the things you are most passionate about that end up coming together.”

Only after eventually acquiring the rights to the concert footage did Leaf finally begin piecing together the story.

“We had to construct the film in such a way that if you didn’t already know the story then you could understand it, but also so that if you did know the story you still learned something new," he says. "The most complicated part was trying to bring together lots of disparate contextual elements.”

For the audience to truly appreciate the significance of the concert, says Leaf, they had to first understand the context in which the concert took place. This meant defining, first of all, what kind of place America really was in the 1960s.

“There is this feeling that the sixties was all about hippies and ‘peace and love’. Really, it was perhaps the most contentious period in American history. There was a lot of turmoil, Vietnam was going on and we were in the middle of the civil rights movement.”

The concert took place just over 24 hours after Dr Martin Luther King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital, after being gunned down on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. As news of King’s assassination swept across the country riots engulfed over 150 cities. One of those cities was Boston, where the Roxbury area was ablaze.

The staff at Boston Garden Arena feared a riot inside their venue and cancelled Brown’s concert. When news reached Tom Atkins, Boston’s only black councilman, he predicted that the cancellation would result in even more chaos. If 15,000 black kids showed up at the Boston Garden and found the gates locked, he told the mayor, not only would there be a riot, but this time it would affect the city centre, not just the ghettos.

"The next strands to weave into the film were James Brown and Martin Luther King,” says Leaf. “It was important for the audience to understand who they were in the eyes of the American public. It was vital for the audience to understand not only how King’s murder affected people, but also where James Brown was at that stage in his career and why he was important to the black community. Finally, we had to understand that Boston was not historically a city that was welcoming to minorities.

“In the film all of these seemingly disparate strands collide into one another without any planning. It’s just one of those accidents of history. April 5th 1968 is a big dot on a map and all of these lines are hurtling towards it. Then in the middle of it all we look at James Brown, faced with this crucible moment, trying to figure out what to do.”

Shortly before Brown touched down in Boston it was decided that not only would the concert go ahead, it would be televised city-wide in an attempt to keep rioters off of the street. When Brown arrived he was shocked to discover a long line of fans queuing outside the Boston Garden to return their tickets and watch at home for free. One controversial portion of the film details Brown’s demand that the city pay him $60,000 dollars for the lost revenue, prompting some viewers to accuse him of holding the city to ransom. Leaf disagrees.

“I can understand why people might see it like that, but at that stage Brown was promoting his own concerts – he had a band, entourage and crew all flying around the world at his personal expense. The city arranged to televise his concert without his consent and he was losing tens of thousands of dollars through people returning tickets so they could watch at home for free.

“If anything, it was the other way around – the mayor’s office had taken James Brown’s concert hostage. Why should James Brown lose money to help the mayor of Boston? What has Boston ever done to deserve James Brown’s help? The answer is not a lot. In those days it wasn’t easy for African-American headliners to find a place in Boston, and now the mayor of Boston was practically begging a black man for help!”

According to manager Charles Bobbit, Brown received only ever $10,000 for the show, a sixth of what he was promised. What exactly happened to the rest, nobody knows, but Leaf says it seemed to go missing sometime between the mayor releasing it and Brown receiving it.

The mayor was overheard before the concert to comment that for $60,000 he expected more than a mere pop concert; he expected a performance for the ages and he expected results. That night, he got both. As Brown crooned and glided across the stage, the streets of Boston remained empty whilst other cities all over the United States continued to burn.

“At that time, TV cameras at a concert were unheard of,” says Leaf. “Aside from a couple of rock documentaries that had been made, if you wanted to see your favourite act on TV then you had to wait until they appeared maybe once a year on the Ed Sullivan show. As a black R&B performer, particularly, there was probably more James Brown on TV that night than there had been in the rest of his career so far combined.

“When the concert finished, they repeated it immediately and then they repeated it again straight after that – and people just kept watching. He didn’t just reduce the rioting; they had less reports of criminal behaviour than on a regular night. That night, James Brown became an American hero.”

The concert itself was mesmerising, and the original footage – seen in the documentary in pristine condition for the first time since it aired in ’68 – is one of the film’s greatest attractions. Leaf says that the story focuses on Brown's career between ’64 and ’69, and that night in Boston is when everything falls into place for him.

“You see him as he is harnessing this extraordinary energy and excitement. You see the music evolving into this extremely original form of expression and then you see him figuring out how to take what he’s got and give it a broad appeal.”

In the wake of the Boston Garden concert Brown found himself a man in demand. The mayor of Washington DC, having heard of Brown’s success, sent the order – “Get me James Brown!”

Brown flew directly from Boston to Washington, where several people had been killed in the riots. Appearing on television, the singer empathised with the black community’s hurt and anger but implored them to consider their actions. He told them, “Don’t terrorise, organise. Don’t burn; give the kids a chance to learn. Go home. Be ready. Be qualified. Be somebody. That is black power.”

Fast becoming a key political figure and trusted spokesman for the African-American community, Brown would make several more impassioned television and radio appearances around the country, urging the his brothers and sisters to honour and to emulate King’s non-violent beliefs.

A month after the Boston Garden concert Brown was invited for dinner at the White House, where he was thanked for his help in the wake of King’s assassination. It was here, according to Reverend Al Sharpton, that Brown had a revelatory exchange with Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

“You know, you have to be careful now,” Humphrey told him.

“Why?” asked Brown. “I did the right thing, didn’t I?”

“Oh yes,” came Humphrey’s reply, “But now that the Government knows that you have the power to stop a riot, they know that you also have the power to start a riot.”

“It gave us all great pause to hear that,” says Leaf, “It was a fantastic insight into the way power works. Of course, it’s very poignant because the audience knows that after the film ends, Brown’s problems with the Government begin.”

In August of 1968 Brown caused the establishment further concern when he recorded the legendary ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’. Although it cost him a lot of white support, the single shot to the top of the black music chart. In 1969 ‘Look’ magazine featured James Brown on its front cover and asked, ‘Is James Brown the most important black man in America?’

It is on this image that the film ends, where Brown is seen as arguably the country’s leading exponent of black power. The message is a positive and inspiring one.

The film will be released in August in a three-disc DVD boxset, ‘I Got The Feelin’ – James Brown in the 60s’. The set will feature the film, the full Boston Garden concert and a ‘Live at the Apollo’ concert filmed in early 1968. It will also contain a host of special features including more than an hour of additional interview material and selected performances.

“All of the performances we reference in the film are included in the set in full,” says Leaf. “We wanted to make the DVD as definitive a package as possible – a definitive portrait of James Brown’s music and his heroics in that period.”

Leaf says his aim now is that the film is used to educate and to inspire young people and keep Brown’s memory alive.

“I hope that the film can be used as a teaching tool and to bring history alive for younger people," he says. "I think that it’s poignant that Reverend Sharpton says in the film that James Brown was more than a singer to black people, he represented hope. I think that resonates today with Obama.

"The past has so much to teach us if we pay attention. There’s the old saying, ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. I started out as a journalist who wanted to make a difference with my work and I think that my films go some way to helping me achieve that.”


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Charles Thomson - Sky News