JAMES BROWN AND JOE BATAAN: DOCUMENTED


I Got The Feelin’: James Brown in the ’60s (Shout Factory, 2008)

Joe Bataan: Mr. New York Is Back (Vampisoul, 2008)

Finally took some time recently to look at two music-related DVDs.

The first is I Got the Feelin’: James Brown In the ’60s, a 3-DVD set comprised of two concerts (Boston Gardens, 4/5/68 & the Apollo Theater, 3/68), plus a documentary, The Night James Brown Saved Boston.

The latter is in reference to one of the astounding cultural moments of the turbulent late ’60s: the day after MLK’s assassination, Brown came to Boston and it was decided that not only would the show go on, but WGBH would broadcast the show throughout the city as a way to “keep the peace.” To that degree, it was successful as Boston did not suffer the same levels of rioting or arrests as other major American cities.

Here’s some video from one of the tensest moments from that evening:

The doc is by director David Leaf (same guy who made John Lennon vs. the U.S.) and I have to say; it’s worth the price of the box-set itself. I thought the film did an excellent job of not just framing the events leading up to and following the April 5th show, but more importantly, it contextualizes the complexities and contradictions of James Brown as a civic, cultural and political leader of the time. I think there’s a conventional wisdom that Brown was a shrewd opportunist – which he was – but in an era of such remarkable strife in America, Brown also tried to step up in the social realm as well and while he certainly wasn’t the most consistent of activists (see: endorsing Nixon, oof!), is complexities help make him a richer character study; something this documentary drives how very, very well. To boot, it has superior production values and some incredible footage of the time.

So good in fact that I wasn’t as invested in watching the actual show itself though, at some later point, I’ll probably go back to it. The Live at the Apollo ’68 footage was compelling as well, especially since it’s intercut with segments of James Brown reflecting on the state of America while being filmed, walking around uptown New York. It’s not, in my opinion, his most scintillating concert (you need to find his Olympia, 1971 show, holy mother of god) but it’s shot and recorded well. The extra bonus footage of him performing with the Famous Flames from 1964 is especially killer. For one, his performance presence was well-honed from early on and second, his performance of “Out of Sight” is such a clear predictor of his future funk innovations.


The other DVD I watched was Joe Bataan: Mr. New York Is Back from Vampisoul, the Spanish label that released Joe’s comeback album, Call My Name. I have to confess, much as I wanted to really like this – and I’m obviously a big fan of Joe – it does feel kind of slapped together. For one, the video relies on a single interview done with Joe with poor lighting and apparently, no boom mic so the sound isn’t great. It’s not unwatchable but it also doesn’t feel particularly professional. Overall, the documentary has its moments, especially with all the vintage photographs that they dug up for it but especially having just seen The Night James Brown Saved Boston, the difference in production is easily seen.

Here’s a trailer for the doc:

Second, the English version hires someone for whom English isn’t his first language and while he’s intelligible, his sense of English’s spoken cadence and pronunciations is off enough that it proves to be a distraction.

Third, among the bonus material, there’s a discography that’s full of wrong dates and albums that aren’t actually part of Joe’s formal discography; sloppy stuff.

Ok: the good stuff? Also on the bonus material are two different videos, filmed in Europe I believe, for “Rap O Clap O,” Joe’s big hip-hop hit from 1979. Just as time capsule, both are great and can be enjoyed both genuinely and ironically. The bonus material also includes a somewhat poor recording of a 1995 show at S.O.B.s but also has better footage from a 2005 show in Spain (though again, the audio quality is notably thin).

Here’s a bonus video (not one of the ones on the DVD) of one of Joe’s European appearances:

In short, I’m glad something like this is out there but it also suggests that there’s room for improvement for a future Joe Bataan documentary to tackle.

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