Thunder Soul: Film Review

A genuinely moving and powerful doc about one of the great funk bands ever, that just happened to be a high school band.

A greater argument for music education in our secondary school curriculum can’t be made than Mark Landsman's doc about a Texas high school funk band that tore up the music scene from 1968 to 1977.

The term “crowd pleaser” gets overused in the film reviewing profession and often as not, even when a critic uses the term approvingly, it forewarns of more than a little manipulation of an audience’s emotions. Mark Landsman’s documentary Thunder Soul earns that designation honestly. Hell, throw in “heart warming” and “tear jerker” as well. The film does all this simply by recording what happened when in February 2008 when 30-some former members of the stage band of Kashmere High School in Houston, gathered for a reunion concert to honor their former teacher, 92-year-old musician and composer Conrad O. Johnson.

As they say, you couldn’t write a story any better even if you made it up. It’s that good.

Whatever happens with the theatrical release by Roadside Attractions, this film is ready-made for television, educational venues, music festivals, home video, downloads and perhaps even an adaptation into a dramatic feature. No wonder Jamie Foxx agreed to “present” the film. A greater argument for music education in our secondary school curriculum can’t be made.

Johnson, universally known to everyone as “Prof,” was a talented enough musician and composer to have made a significant splash in the profession. But he fell in love with a local girl, chose instead to stay in Kashmere to raise a large family and enjoyed 52 years of wedded bliss until his wife passed. Funnily enough, he wound up making that splash anyway.

He took a job as music director at the predominantly black Kashmere High in the late 1960s. There he transformed a mediocre jazz band into a powerhouse by introducing funk, much of it with his own compositions, and slick choreographed movements by band members with their bodies and instruments.

From 1968 to 1977, the Kashmere Stage Band won just about every contest it entered. The high-school band traveled to Europe and Japan where the youngsters wowed audiences. Kashmere even won the All-American High School Stage Band Festival in Mobile, Alabama, in 1972, this at a time when that state’s governor was segregationist George Wallace.

KSB recorded eight albums during its life. While this music was lost for a while, since 2003 it has returned on LPs, prized by dj’s, and sold as CDs.

The movie doesn’t overemphasis this point, but obviously KSB broke the color barrier — smashed it to bits is more like it — while inspiring African-American students, in and outside the band, and transforming the lives of those who studied and played under Prof.

The movie tells its story through a mixture of heart-felt interviews with former band members, archival footage down through the years, scenes of Prof in his prime and still highly lucid and articulate in retirement and finally excellent camerawork by Sandra Chandler, all editing by Claire Didier, so as to capture the drama and joy of the reunion.

Many ex-band members haven’t touched their instruments in over 30 years. Their first rehearsal is … well, let’s use the word of one band member— “terrible.” But too much is at stake to quit. Everyone needs to get the job done for Prof. It’s too important to these middle-age people to give back to the old man.

The man leading the charge and organizing the reunion is Craig Baldwin (band member 1974-76), who probably deserves his own movie. He’s a tough, burly guy, who could have been a gang member but is a sweetheart, no doubt due to Prof’s influence. He commands instant respect and pushes, always gently, but nonetheless pushes. His smile is a mile wide and his frowns contain a hint of mirth as well. He virtually wills the reunion band back into glorious shape.

Then, as the day approaches, Prof suffers a heart attack and his attendance is in genuine doubt. He hangs onto life for this final concert and there he is near the front, seated next to his middle-aged son, his jaw dropping in astonishment to hear for one final time the powerful sights and sounds he and he alone created.

Yes, it’s a crowd pleaser, all right.

Opens: September 23, New York (Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Snoot Entertaiment
Director: Mark Landsman
Producers: Keith Calder, Mark Landsman, Jessica Wu
Executive producers: Jamie Foxx, Jaime Rucker King
Director of photography: Sandra Chandler
Music supervisors: Jim Black, Gabe Hilfer
Editor: Claire Didier
PG rating, 82 minutes