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Thursday, August 7, 2008

I GOT THE FEELIN: JAMES BROWN IN THE 60s -- DVD review by porfle

While I've always liked James Brown, I was never what you'd call a big fan. Now, after viewing Shout! Factory's 3-disc set I GOT THE FEELIN': JAMES BROWN IN THE '60s, I have a much deeper appreciation for both his talent as a musician and the important role he played in the civil rights movement. The biggest surprise for me, in fact, was the discovery of an incident in Boston following Martin Luther King's assassination, which makes this DVD set not only an irresistible record of Brown's musical prowess at the time but also the compelling account of a fascinating moment in American history.

I wanted to save the Boston stuff for later and indulge in some pure entertainment right away, so the first disc I watched was "James Brown Live at the Apollo '68." Originally broadcast as a television special entitled "James Brown: Man to Man", the image and sound quality are pretty rough at times--the early color video is especially bad at first, although it improves as it goes along. It helps to think of this as a priceless recording that we're lucky to have, warts and all, rather than dwelling on its imperfections. For me, they were soon forgotten as I became engrossed in James Brown's electrifying performance before a fiercely appreciative audience in the legendary Harlem theater.

Sweat pouring from his face, Brown earns his nickname as "the hardest working man in show business" as he gives his all during each number, belting out one classic after another with his heart and soul. The songs include "I Got the Feelin'", "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World", "I Feel Good", "Please, Please, Please" and twelve more, usually with one segueing right into the next. The backup band is hot, and with each song Brown gets into a groove and works it for all it's worth with his customary showmanship, including those patented dance steps, mike stand acrobatics, and that delightfully dramatic robe routine as a finale. The direction is really terrible during the show and the psychedelic '60s camera effects are a major distraction, but that's the way stuff like this was usually televised back then and the whole thing serves as a time capsule of its era.

A brief documentary portion shows Brown walking the streets of Watts and Harlem, commenting on what should be done to improve conditions in such communities ("My fight now is for the Black America to become American.") With a running time of almost fifty minutes, the Apollo show is augmented by James Brown's 1964 performance of "Out of Sight" on THE T.A.M.I. SHOW, plus two more songs from a 1967 show at L'Olympia in Paris.

The next disc I watched was "James Brown Live at the Boston Garden", taped during his historic April 5, 1968 show only 24 hours after Martin Luther King's assassination. With cities burning across America and angry riots raging in the streets, Brown's scheduled appearance there was turned into a televised memorial concert and an opportunity to relieve tensions in a peaceful way. The mood is initially tense as Boston's sole black councilman Thomas Atkins and the city's mayor Kevin White introduce Brown while urging everyone to honor Dr. King's legacy of non-violence. Then James Brown takes the stage and performs full-throttle for over an hour.

The public television station WGBH in Boston was unaccustomed to covering such a concert, especially at such short notice, but they do a magnificent job here. The direction and camerawork are outstanding, with uncommonly rich black-and-white videography that looks almost cinematic at times, and dramatic lighting which is particularly effective in the backlit shots from behind the stage. A few awkward moments occur, and at one point the video is missing for a minute or so, but these are negligible in light of how well this impromptu telecast turned out. On the whole, this is an amazing document of what is perhaps the most important performance of James Brown's career.

What almost turned it into a disaster comes in the latter minutes of the concert. With people crowding forward and starting to climb onstage, Brown's security men brusquely shove them back one by one and are soon joined by Boston police in flinging people off the stage. Brown calls a halt to this with the assurance that he can handle his people, but in no time is surrounded by a swarm of rowdy fans who refuse to back off. Brown strongly expresses disappointment and exhorts them to show him some respect ("We're Black--don't make us all look bad!") and let him finish the show, which he is finally allowed to do. Everything ends well, although for a few moments there it's a tense situation that could've gone bad in a heartbeat. All in all, pretty fascinating stuff. As an extra, the audio of Brown's eight-minute speech to the crowd before the show is played against an old-fashioned Indian chief test pattern.

Having watched the concert itself, I was really ready for the third disc, director David Leaf's excellent 2008 documentary THE NIGHT JAMES BROWN SAVED BOSTON. The backstory of King's murder, the resulting nationwide chaos that came after it, and the tension-filled situation in Boston are presented in well-chosen archival footage along with narration by Dennis Haysbert ("24", THE COLOR OF FREEDOM) and interviews with Mayor White and Councilman Atkins, Brown's manager Charles Bobbit, Boston deejay James Byrd, Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Cornel West, various bandmembers and concert attendees, and several others. (Bonus footage of these interviews is included on the disc along with a panel discussion which followed the film's premiere.)

Atkins' idea of using the James Brown concert to quell impending violence had to be sold to a dubious mayor, but an even more dubious Brown, it turns out, was fit to be tied when he discovered that his concert was to be televised for free--several times, in fact--and people were already cashing in their tickets. The drama that occurred during the closing segment of the concert is recounted by witnesses including David Gates of Newsweek, who was there that night and attests to the air of anxiety that hung over the situation ("It could've gone up like a torch," he recalls.) But perhaps the most compelling part of this documentary is James Brown's subsequent role as one of the most influential leaders of the civil rights movement, a racial ambassador helping to bring people together, and a crucial proponent of Black pride in America.

The three discs are boxed in slimline cases with achingly cool retro design and a 23-page booklet by Rickey Vincent, with an introduction by David Leaf. As a whole, I GOT THE FEELIN': JAMES BROWN IN THE '60s is a treasure trove of invaluable concert footage and real-life historical drama that's ultimately both enlightening and inspiring. If you're a James Brown fan already, this is a must-see. If not, watch it and you just might get the feelin'.


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