Thunder Soul – Review


Musical doc will leave you jazzed and ready to get funky

Documentaries are to film what research papers are to English class. Both involve a subject and lots of research. But that’s not always enough. You need to be a good storyteller if you want to make a lasting impression. Still, even if you have a firm hold of the material sometimes an unplanned occurrence can change your entire perspective. Such is the case with Thunder Soul, and director Mark Landsman. While he may have captured a family coming together to honor its patriarch, Landsman’s documentary flips the script to become a film of unflinching heart that will have you cheering with adulation and tearing up when things turn to heartbreak.

The family that comes together is not a family in the traditional sense; it’s a high school stage band reuniting after thirty-four years.

In Houston, Texas in the 1970s, Conrad O. Johnson presided as stage band director at Kashmere high school. A gifted musician, he could have taken his talent on the road to make a living. He gave it all up for love and became a teacher instead. During his tenure this humble man (affectionately called “Prof” by his students) touched the lives of those same students as he led the Kashmere Stage Band to unparalleled heights. They won on the state and national levels, and performed overseas in the countries France and Japan. So they can definitely play.

To understand just how talented they were, one interview subject sums it up best. “They were just good. Not ‘good’ in Mmm, Mmm Good, but ‘good’ in God created the world to be good.”

Prof’s philosophy when it came to playing a musical instrument is a simple concept. “There is no limit to a child’s ability to play music.” Tell a child that he or she can and watch what happens. Now Prof’s students may not have ventured to a career in music – some make their living as doctors, lawyers, business professionals, and otherwise (one is even a reverend) – but it was the music that kept them out of trouble. The world was changing in the 1970s. They were still children when their parents survived the fight for civil rights. It was their turn to deal with the repercussion. This meant counterculture, Afros, and bellbottom pants. When funk came on to the scene that was their music and with that music they found a purpose. Prof noticed the change in the music landscape and tailored the stage band to perform funk-inspired renditions of jazz classics. The music and the way the band performed it was so fresh and unique that their success would be without equal.

Thunder Soul picks up in 2008, way after the band’s heyday. Prof is now 92 years old. Feeble as he may look his passion for music still burns strong, specifically for artists like Duke Ellington, who he revered, and James Brown. It is the lasting impression he had on the original Kashmere band that has made the students come back to Houston for a one of a kind reunion show. Some haven’t played a musical instrument since graduation but reunite to pay respect to the man whose incredible influence shaped their lives.

From the opening moments director Mark Landsman hooks us and spends the next 83 minutes reeling us in. Thunder Soul is a crowd-pleasing documentary to be sure that takes us on an emotional journey full of sweet and bittersweet moments. You cannot watch this movie and not be moved in some way. Some may be heartbroken or inspired, or maybe both.

And the music – are you kidding me? It’s the best supporting character in this film. So amazed I was with the funky sounds of the Kashmere Stage Band, I actually went home and ordered a compilation album of both live and studio recorded tracks that was released in 2006 (note: an updated compilation is coming out in late September to coincide with the doc’s theatrical release).

Acting as a fly on the wall we get inside the music department of Kashmere high school where the band practiced then and now; the trophies that sit on ledges that jut out from the walls are caked in dust. As for the band today, their Afros may be gone and appearances changed but there’s no mistaking the admiration these men and women have for the man who will forever be Prof, a musician and teacher but an even greater man.

Thunder Soul explores the power of music and the love of a great man. But it’s more than just a love letter to Conrad O. Johnson. The documentary gives sound reason (no pun intended) about why school districts shouldn’t cut music and art programs. If Waiting for Superman was the lightning rod for America’s current state of education, or lack thereof, this film makes a case why arts are necessary. As it is currently, the Kashmere band only consists of eight students with an ever-decreasing budget. If Landsman’s doc does enough to fill just one more seat in a music classroom then he’s succeeded.

Director: Mark Landsman
Notable Cast: The Kashmere Stage Band