Editors' pick

Thunder Soul

Critic rating:
MPAA rating: PG
Genre: Documentary
Conrad Johnson's dynamic arrangements transformed the idea of the high school band, and brought his students worldwide recognition, affecting their whole Texas community.
Director: Mark Landsman
Running time: 1:28
Release: Opened Oct 7, 2011

Editorial Review

This school band rocks the house

By John DeFore

Friday, Oct 07, 2011

The kind of true story Hollywood loves to adapt for inspirational classroom drama, Mark Landsman's documentary "Thunder Soul" introduces viewers to a high school band music buffs have known about for years: the Kashmere Stage Band, who in the '70s were, as one interviewee puts it, "as good as or better than any funk band in the nation, professional or otherwise."

Formed in Houston's impoverished Fifth Ward, the band was totally unlike the square "jazz" bands found in many white high schools. While most such groups evoked Guy Lombardo more than Duke Ellington, Kashmere High band instructor Conrad O. Johnson wrote originals and arrangements worthy of James Brown, then worked his young musicians until they could not only nail the music, but execute tightly choreographed moves as well.

Executive producer Jamie Foxx has lent his name to the doc, suggesting that he might be interested in playing Johnson some day. But in a perfect world the role would go to Clarke Peters (who plays Albert Lambreaux in "Treme") - who not only looks like the man students called "Prof," but captures the dignified cool that we glimpse here in vintage footage.

Though we'd love to see more of Prof in action, we come to know him mostly via loving reminiscences from his students, 30 of whom reunited in February 2008 to honor the then-92-year-old with a concert. Landsman follows the alumni, many of whom haven't touched a horn in 30-odd years, as they're whipped into shape by classmate Craig Baldwin.

Baldwin, a self-confessed onetime thug who says he'd probably be dead if not for Johnson's good example, is one character who stands out among the film's many interviewees. Viewers will likely wish they could hear something about what all these kids went on to do after school, but Landsman focuses solely on their band years: After winning a national competition in Mobile, Ala., despite racial tensions, the group toured Europe and Japan; its success seems to have inspired classmates, who during this period excelled in everything from debate club to sports.

Years later, an LP Kashmere recorded was discovered by "funk musicologist" Eothen Alapatt, whose Stones Throw label put out a CD reissue. A new generation of hipsters discovered them, and DJs sampled their beats for new records. Arguably, the current generation of funk and soul revivalists owes a debt to musicians who forged their astonishing sound in between Algebra study sessions.

Contains brief language and, as the ratings board comically puts it, "momentary historical smoking" which, presumably, refers to tobacco, ot the music, which smokes throughout.