Film Review: Thunder Soul

Warmly uplifting documentary about an inspiring teacher and the funky, funky music he made with generations of happy kids.

The achievement of one man, Conrad “Prof” Johnson, is fully celebrated in Mark Landman‘s documentary Thunder Soul. Johnson was a Houston, Texas high-school band instructor who taught generations of students, often giving lives with no or bad direction true meaningfulness and, yes, salvation. With his Kashmere Stage Band, he was revolutionary as well, moving his happy, grateful kids from the square old big-band arrangements of standards into the realms of jazz and funk, almost—if perhaps not completely—ridding band participation of its traditional stigma of nerdiness. James Brown, Bootsy Collins, The Commodores, Parliament Funkadelic and other classic performers of the 1970s are reverently cited by the band members, now middle-aged but feisty as ever, as major, lasting influences on their sound.

Thunder Soul
centers on a 35-year reunion of students who have come together again to play a concert for the 92-year-old Johnson, many of whom haven’t touched their instruments in years. Dramatically, Johnson suffered a heart attack just before the performance and died shortly thereafter, but you see him enthroned at the concert, frail but—like everyone else—completely carried away by the music.

It’s a wonderful, life-affirming, heartwarming story, filled with rich, recognizable human emotion of the most fulfilling kind. The band members are a spirited, humorous group and you can easily sense the deep camaraderie they share, even after years of not being together. I defy anyone not to have a smile on their face when you see them, finally in concert, having weathered many a painful (and no doubt ear-taxing) rehearsal, in glorious musical fettle, making with the funky sounds from their instruments and the equally funky, ecstatically synchronized moves which set them so vibrantly apart from all other high-school assemblages and drove crowds wild. Even in an age of school segregation, The Kashmeres won trophy after trophy in high-school band competitions, all of which are lovingly on display.

I just wish there were more to the movie. One would have liked to have seen much more of Johnson‘s actual biography, apart from his job. What were the roots and personal life of this inspiring paragon of generosity? The same applies to many of the amazingly likeable band members: What did they go on to do and become? Such information would have added even more richness to this wonderful account, as well as some stirring, vital context.