The Night James Brown Saved Boston



9 p.m. Saturday, April 5

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, a defining event not only of the 1960s and the civil rights movement but indeed American history itself.

In a sad irony, the murder touched off rioting and violence in cities coast to coast, the ultimate chaotic counterpoint to King's steadfast pacifism. This fine hourlong VH1 "Rock Doc" has less to do with rock 'n roll than the power of music to literally keep an angry mob at bay, detailing how a fellow named James Brown was able to keep Boston from imploding into anarchic insurrection through the alchemy of his scheduled concert appearance the night after the assassination.

Indeed, it's the stuff of legend that Brown used his place in history to honor King's message and play Boston Garden on April 5, 1968, showing by strength of example the need to rise above this bracing tragedy rather than compound its knee-jerk reverberations. As is detailed in "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," this was no small feat on the R&B legend's part given his wholehearted disagreement with King's guiding principle of nonviolence.

The docu gathers many of the voices who lived through it, including Andrew Young -- who was one of those at King's side when he was killed -- along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and then-Boston Mayor Kevin White. It was White, as we learn here, who asked Brown to encourage his fans (aka black ghetto dwellers) to stay home and watch his concert on TV as part of a desperate plea for peace. This of course required Brown to agree to televise his show and potentially take money out of his pocket. Brown ultimately would give his blessing and put on a show of raw, intense, emotional spectacle, as those who were in attendance recall. And for the first time, footage from that show is made available as part of the docu. That the strategy worked, and Boston didn't erupt in flames, is credited in part (or even mostly) to Brown's show of grace under fire.

At a time of huge rancor and turmoil, James Brown did Dr. King proud. And the moment is captured with sublime eloquence in this superb hour.