Title: Thunder Soul
Director: Mark Landsman
The glut of studies — seemingly released almost weekly — showing the slippage and relatively poor international ranking of American high school students in core academic subjects like math, science and history is troubling, certainly, and indicative of a need to redouble efforts in those areas. But as anyone who still has a honest connection to their adolescence will admit, the role of extracurriculars and artistic electives is often integral to a teenager’s sense of engagement and self-worth, and certainly the type of well-roundedness that helps produce open-minded individuals who can work well with others. Not everyone has the aptitude to be a professional singer, musician, artist or athlete, after all, but studying and taking part in these disciplines, and working within the confines of a team or group, helps teach leadership and life lessons that are broadly applicable, and also gives one a healthy lens through which to view the world.
This moral is on rich display in “Thunder Soul,” a new documentary about the music director at a predominantly African-American high school who, beginning in the late 1960s, transformed a mediocre jazz band into a dynamic, full-fledged funk powerhouse, empowering a generation-plus of kids along the way. When Conrad Johnson, widely known as “Prof” to his students, took over Houston’s Kashmere High, band was an often awkward clash of old musical standards and lax devotion. Instilling a sense of take-no-mess discipline while also encouraging his students to embrace their own inimitable style, Johnson grew an admirable technical proficiency through demanding practices, and then indulged and cultivated his students’ exuberance and burgeoning sense of showmanship.
The result was something special. Johnson’s talents as a composer — he wrote more than 50 original compositions, ladling funk on top of a jazz base — led to his students recording a series of hit records under the moniker The Kashmere Stage Band, with tunes like “Thunder Soul” and “Head Wiggle” blowing away the competition at heretofore staid stage band contests. Importantly, the band’s success and the community’s pride in it also worked as a sort of positive viral infection; Kashmere’s ROTC, hoops, football and debate teams all fielded winning squads, and the school was awarded more student college scholarships than any other Houston high school.
Executive-produced by Jamie Foxx, “Thunder Soul” is built around a 2008 reunion which finds more than 30 former stage band members spanning all sorts of different graduating classes — now all in their 50s, and many not having touched their instruments in decades — reuniting to play a special tribute concert for their beloved former teacher and mentor. An easygoing and heartwarming tale of emotional uplift, the movie is a bonafide crowd-pleaser, as evidenced by its Audience Award victories at the South By Southwest and Los Angeles Film Festivals, as well as a special “Crystal Heart Award” at the Heartland Film Festival and numerous other festival circuit plaudits.
Ninety-two years of age at the time of filming, Johnson is not necessarily in the condition to provide entirely accurate reminiscences, but director Mark Landsman does a good job of blending interview material that pays respect to his subject as both a unique musical talent and a man and teacher who knew how to get the most out of his students. If there’s a failing, it’s that while “Thunder Soul” is undeniably involving, Landsman also misses some key opportunities to tie in the Kashmere alumni to the school’s present day students, which could have proven quite interesting and added a whole other emotional level to the movie. That said, the film is still a compelling snapshot of how and why good teachers matter, as well as a case for the value of the continued study of the arts in high school curricula. For more information, visit www.ThunderSoulMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon