The story of James Brown’s performance on the night following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination has been told many times. With this Extended Release DVD, Shout Factory have given us the complete two-hour broadcast that is said to have given enough people in Boston something positive to do with their evening on a night when they sorely needed it, that it literally stopped a riot. The how and why of the legendary concert has been explored in other films – most notably 2008’s The Night James Brown Saved Boston which is also essential viewing for anyone interested in all things JB – but this is the first time we’ve had access to the full program as originally broadcast, including two previously unreleased Brown performances, the opening sets by Bobby Byrd and Marva Whitney, and the speeches by Brown, Boston Mayor Kevin White and City Councilman Tom Atkins that kicked off the program.
While not the most hi-fi footage of Brown ever shot – it’s a little dark and murky looking, and the vocal mic sounds like a telephone handset, though the band sounds fine – it is a rare chance to experience the James Brown Show from 1968 in real time; most footage from the period has his energy condensed into five minute bursts. Here, we get to see how he paced himself for a long evening, opening his own show before handing the mic over to Byrd, reappearing for a few numbers prior to Whitney’s set, then building the intensity through his closing hour on stage. On this night, it reaches such a boiling point that the audience starts spilling onto the stage, and the uniformed police hired to protect Brown step forward to confront them.
Even knowing how it ends, the scene is terribly unnerving to watch, the moment where this event that has built up as something that needs to happen in order to keep the peace, seems like it’s going to erupt into white cops beating up black youth on live TV, and send everyone who’s been watching quietly at home right out onto the street.
Against all odds, Brown manages to pull off some calm, cool reasoning in this firestorm, telling the crowd he expects some respect from them, telling the the cops to stand down, and now it’s time for everyone to let him finish the show. Can we do that?
It works. Somehow, everybody realizes if they don’t get their thing together, he’s not going to finish “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)” and goes back to their seats. The cops actually do stand down. This scene distills the entire show’s historical import into about 30 seconds of footage… despite these peoples’ intense desire to physically express their rage, they will stand down when there is a James Brown show about to go on.
Apart from this one tense moment, it’s possible to get lost in the dynamic, inexhaustible performance unfolding on tape. The newly added material is worthwhile – Byrd sounds like a potential Stax headliner during his set, and Whitney confidently belts her way through “Tell Mama,” “Chain Of Fools” and “Check Yourself.” But it’s the overwhelming energy of Brown’s performance that makes this an essential purchase for fans of uncut funk. One of the previously-unseen JB racks is a tremendous, tonally spot-on version of “If I Ruled The World” that opened the broadcast, another is a duet with Byrd on “You’ve Got To Change Your Mind” that shows the Godfather was capable of generosity with the spotlight, even if his own dazzling glow was not easily hid under a bushel.