Despite the hyperbolic title, the film is a soulful documentary about a city and an entertainer doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the hyperbolic title, “The Night James Brown Saved Boston” is a soulful documentary about a city and an entertainer doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons.

Yes, the hip-swiveling Brown and the truth-swiveling Kevin White, Boston’s Machiavellian mayor, did team to keep the city’s Roxbury section from going up in flames the night following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but the welfare of the public was not nearly as dear to them as their egos.

The film, showing through Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, reveals the men of color (Brown and White) to be of such pride and selfishness that it almost seems a freak accident that they were able to pull off what they pulled off on April 5, 1968.

The scene was the old Boston Garden, where Brown was scheduled to appear that Friday night. Given the level of rioting sparked by King’s death the night before, White was ready to cancel the concert for fear of angry black folks streaming into the downtown and threatening the Beacon Hill aristocracy.

Enter Boston’s legendary city councilor and civil rights leader Tom Atkins (who passed away just seven weeks ago) to offer the perfect solution to saving the concert and keeping potential rioters inside their homes: televise the entire show on WGBH, Channel 2.

Atkins emerges as the true hero of the story, working tirelessly to appease both White, who wanted to save himself the embarrassment of public unrest, and Brown, the king of soul who demanded a king’s ransom to perform on TV.

“We just don’t have that kind of money,” White says of Brown’s demands of $60,000.

That it all worked out is a minor miracle. And that, not the grainy, hastily shot footage of Brown’s historic concert, is what makes David Leaf’s documentary a must-see.

Luckily, Leaf realized this and keeps the concert clips to a minimum while approaching his subject from three distinct sides: Kevin White and his flunkies; James Brown and his flunkies; and the amazing folks at Channel 2, who on about six hours of notice set up cameras, strung mikes and dispensed an army of production personnel to the Garden to capture a pivotal moment in Boston history.

Leaf also deftly builds tension – will the concert ever happen? – even though we all know that it did. But it’s his ability to so fully develop Brown, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers, and White, the young (he was 34 at the time), brash mayor, as they work to cross their cultural divides and help the public good.

Leaf falters a bit in his selection of talking heads. Where the reflective views of White, Atkins and the Rev. Al Sharpton, at the time a member of Brown’s posse, are fascinating, the opinions of the concertgoers and others not directly involved in the White-Brown rift, are blah.

That’s just a minor beef with a movie that otherwise offers up a satisfying mix of interviews, archival footage and an important history lesson about a time when the white establishment referred to Brown as not just a “singer,” but a “Negro singer.”

My, we’ve come a long way.


THE NIGHT JAMES BROWN SAVED BOSTON (Not rated). A documentary by David Leaf featuring interviews with Kevin White, Tom Atkins and the Rev. Al Sharpton. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Sunday. 3 stars

The Patriot Ledger