Review: Thunder Soul

Forcefully traditional and sentimental, Thunder Soul benefits most from the cinematic turn of the actual events it documents.

Thunder Soul
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Likely the best high school act of all time, the Kashmere Stage Band erupted from inner-city Houston in the early 1970s, sweeping national competitions, recording albums, and eventually touring Europe and Japan. Collected on the recent Texas Thunder Soul compilation, their music was a stunningly coordinated, developed orchestration of funk, bristling with sharp horns and adolescent exuberance. The group remains such a perfect, mysterious entity that a documentary exploration threatens to spoil the whole thing, something Thunder Soul sidesteps by presenting a respectable mix of history and heartstring-tugging drama.

The film devotes ample time to the story of the group, but asserts itself by focusing most of the attention on Conrad “Prof” Johnson, the teacher who somehow transformed a ragged group of kids into one of the best funk bands in the country. There’s nothing surprising in the lionization of this de facto father figure, who provided discipline and direction for packs of potentially wayward students. Yet despite settling into the usual “inspirational teacher” mold favored by so much similarly presented pap, Thunder Soul is redeemed by the singular accomplishments of its subject and the inherent charisma of nearly everyone involved.

A former jazz musician, Johnson had turned down an offer from Count Basie’s touring band to settle down and raise a family, taking up a long-term position at Kashmere High School. Thirty years into his career, already in his mid-50s, he realized how to harness the power modern artists like James Brown had over his students. After experiencing an epiphany while attending a Bill Withers concert, Johnson hatched a plan to tap into their vivacity for pop music to amp up the sound of his band.

As the film shows us through amusing archival footage, the ’70s high school stage-band circuit was staid and dreary, dominated by groups in leisure suits slogging through Lawrence Welk-style standards. Composing his own songs and adapting expanded instrumental versions of popular hits, Johnson blew the lid off the circuit by energizing his students, creating a roaring sound that involved charging horn solos, two-tone suits, and coordinated dance moves. In the movie’s reckoning, this positioned the group as a crucial component of the rising standing of black pride following the civil rights movement.

Roughly half of Thunder Soul focuses on the lead up to a 2008 reunion show initiated by former members, determined to honor the 92-year-old Johnson while he’s still around to appreciate it. Most of them haven’t picked up their instruments in years, and though these former Kashmere kids are a fun group, watching them go from rusty mess to a once-again functioning band makes for the film’s worst sequences. The suspense proscribed to this process is a hollow feint, and too much time is spent on teary reunions and nostalgic remembrances, where more energy could have been expended exploring the group’s broader significance, their status as a sample-lode for modern rap producers and DJs.

Forcefully traditional and sentimental, Thunder Soul benefits most from the cinematic turn of the actual events it documents, which allowed the beloved teacher’s life to end on a perfectly bittersweet note. It traffics in broad feeling and fluff, but despite the familiarity of its themes, manages to not turn cloying, holding up its subject as a proud icon of empowerment, inspiration, and influence.

 Cast: Conrad Johnson  Director: Mark Landsman  Screenwriter: Mark Landsman  Distributor: Roadside Attractions  Running Time: 88 min  Rating: PG  Year: 2011  Buy: Video

Jesse Cataldo

Jesse Cataldo hails from Brooklyn, where he spends his time writing all kinds of things, preparing elaborate sandwiches, and hopelessly trying to whittle down his Netflix queue.

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