2010 Heartland Film FestivalRating: 3.5 of 5 yaps

Thunder Soul

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“Thunder Soul” is an ode to a man and a band. For a brief time in the 1970s, the Kashmere Stage Band from a high school on the poor side of Houston was one of the top bands in the country. They played an eclectic mix of jazz and funk, adapted to the instruments and size of a high school band by Conrad O. Johnson, a visionary director who saw no reason why his students shouldn’t play at the same level as professional musicians.

They won national contests year after year, put out their own records, traveled the nation doing gigs and even had tours in Europe and Japan. Not a bad gig for a bunch of African-American teenagers nobody thought would amount to much.

The band, nicknamed Thunder Soul, is chronicled by director Mark Landsman in this slickly-made feature documentary. The framing story is the return of many of the original band members for a tribute concert to Johnson — or “Prof” as they endearingly refer to a teacher who made a huge difference in their lives.

Now in their 40s and 50s, many of these Kashmere band members have not even touched their instruments for 30 years or more — as we can readily hear when they first attempt their old tunes. That tight sound has grown sloppy, but we have reason to believe that Craig Baldwin, a former street tough turned benevolent taskmaster, will whip them into shape in time.

Johnson, now in his 90s and mostly blind, basks in the glow of appreciation from those he’s taught. His principles, like his taste in music, is old school: Treat young people with respect, demand the most out of them and show them a path to achievement, and they will not let you down.

Landsman’s camera always seems to be in the right place to capture a critical reunion or conversation — almost to the point that we wonder how much his subjects were playing to the filmmaker. A hospital encounter between a frail Johnson and Baldwin looks suspiciously staged.

The strong emotions and sentimentality of the documentary would have been enhanced by more of a reportorial stance. The demise of the stage band program at Kashmere High — which is threatened with closure as an underperforming school — is dealt with quickly and in a perfunctory manner. I would have liked more exploration of how his former students felt about the impact on Johnson’s legacy, in that no one followed in his footsteps.

“Thunder Soul” is a document of a time and a place and a sound that are all antiquated, but not forgotten.

3.5 Yaps

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4 Responses to “Thunder Soul”

  1. reginald nelson says:

    The truth was told in the Thunder Soul movie.Prof was my father figure, teacher and mentor.We did not have to make up or stage anything concerning our feelings for prof. I am so Thankful on this day for my life encounters with greatness. I know it may be hard to understand it all but the truth remains the truth no matter who doubts. Mark captured the true story of Thunder soul.

  2. Craig Baldwin says:

    When Reginald "Rollo" Rollins and I came up with the idea to create a tribute talent show in honor of our mentor Mr. Conrad O. Johnson [Prof], we had no idea it would spawn such madness. The show was a great success at Francis Scott Key Middle School (the former Kashmere Senior High School).

    Mark Landsman, the brilliant director of Thunder Soul approached Rollo and me about putting the original stage band back together. What a tremendous tall order. Rollo handled all administrative duties while I was charged with finding former members. The beauty in word of mouth and the power of Prof—the Drum Major of Jazz-Funk, abridge my search.

    We rehearsed every Monday and Wednesday at Kashmere High School for 4 weeks preparing the February 2008 show for Prof. Initially, our sound was truly ugly, but our heart and soul was the music and Prof’s great hand in guidance. After all, some of us hadn’t played our instruments in nearly 35 years.

    The musical blessings of Prof showered us with greatness to come. We knew what we had to do because Prof was going to be seating out there listening meticulously at his boys and girls. Prof had zero-tolerance when it came to performances and showmanship. In his view, we are a unit able to harmoniously conquer all with our arduous work.

    On February 1, 2008, we did our first performance for him at Kashmere High School’s auditorium. The student body, faculty administrators, the school district’s superintendent, news media and former graduates of Kashmere were there too. We performed our set hoping for an endorsement from our Drum Major of Jazz-Funk. He loved it!! What a relief to get his endorsement.

    On February 2, 2008, our performance was even better for him. After the performance, the Mistress of Ceremony asked him what he thought about our performance, collectively the last word we heard him say, “Excellent.” We loudly cheered with joy and tears. Man, our General sprinkled his love on us again. What a timeless moment for all.

    Several hours later, he passed. It was if he negotiated a deal with God to allow him to hang around long enough to see his children do it again. We are proud students of Mr. Conrad O. Johnson. The documentary articulates truth about our band director and his focus for success. Nothing was contrived. We recently got distribution and the documentary will be in theaters early 2011.

    Finally, Christopher Lloyd, writer for The Film Yap wrote, “A hospital encounter between a frail Johnson and Baldwin looks suspiciously staged.” In my former life, my gangsta style consumed me. And, if I were in that mindset today, there would be a drive-by aim at Mr. Lloyd. My tears were not staged, I along without others always felt Prof to be Superman. It pained me deeply to see him in the state. I loved him so and was not ashamed in expressing it with my tears.

    His power to motivate, his gentle approach, his loving heart, the soul of his music and most saliently, his parental guidance were declining right before me and I went into denial. I never wanted to see him frail and/or helpless. I wanted him to be the man. He is the man and always will be the man. Many thanks Christopher Lloyd and The Film Yap. But be advised Mr. Lloyd, nothing about Thunder Soul was “suspiciously staged.”

    …that is all
    Craig Baldwin, Conductor
    Kashmere Reunion Stage Band

  3. Michelle says:

    It sometimes happen with great films that providence is on the side of the filmmakers. Such is the case with THUNDER SOUL. The hospital scene was definitely NOT staged. Nor was any other aspect of the film (other than the concert, of course). Many great lives and moments happened to converge at the same right time. I take it as a sign that this story was supposed to be told and the right tellers stepped up to the task.

  4. Joshua Hibbitt says:

    this looks like a very interesting film if i somehow win tickets to this i will definitely be going to see this!