TV Preview

He Said It Loud

"The Night James Brown Saved Boston" recounts how the Godfather of Soul helped stave off a riot after Martin Luther King's assassination. (By Bob Dean -- Boston Globe)
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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

This stiff with a Boston Brahmin accent is sounding as if he's just ordered a mimosa and oysters on the half shell, talking into the microphone on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated: "WGBH public radio invites you to stay tuned for a live memorial concert from the Boston Garden, featuring Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his group."

Those are the first words of "The Night James Brown Saved Boston." It sounds like a short story in the New Yorker, but it's actually a VH1 documentary debuting tonight at 9. Somehow this hour-long program is both a sincere and funny remembrance of how Beantown's leaders and the Godfather of Soul bumbled and beefed their way into turning a regularly scheduled concert into an event that (barely) staved off devastating riots.

This is from David Leaf, he of the feature film "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." The documentary features current-day interviews with most of the main players in the event, concert footage, vintage news coverage of the riots sweeping across the country, and a voice-of-God narration from Dennis Haysbert. It's not "Eyes on the Prize," and doesn't try to be. It's about a weird little sideshow to one of the worst moments in American history and is pretty close to flawless. (Okay, the title overreaches with "saved," but the show doesn't take itself too seriously, so lighten up.)

More than 100 cities across the country start to burn after King's assassination, and Boston appears to be ripe for trouble. The city was no paradise of race relations, and this is where King earned the title of "doctor," from Boston University. He met his wife there. People -- such as African Americans forced to live in ghettos in Roxbury, in the South End -- remember.

And who has a concert scheduled for the next night?

James Brown! Babybabybaby!

Scenario 1: Let the concert go on, and you have about 15,000 fans, presumably most of them black, come to downtown Boston for a concert by Soul Brother No. 1, who wasn't exactly in line with that nonviolence thing, with security provided mostly by white cops with billy clubs. Scenario 2: Cancel the concert, and have those 15,000 come downtown to find out The Man wouldn't let The Godfather in town.

This is what's known as a lose-lose situation.

Brand-new mayor Kevin White is adamant that the show must be canceled. He's talked into changing that position by Tom Atkins, a Harvard Law student who happens to be the only black person on the city council. (And, you know, thereby deputized to deal with This Negro From Out of Town.)

White decides to solve the problem by slapping the show on live television, and offering refunds to anyone who asks.

But -- and this tells you how 1968 it was -- he sort of doesn't bother to ask Mr. James Brown whether that was okay by him.

Well, honey, The Godfather stands to lose 60 large! He is not happy!

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