“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.