Mark Landsman’s spirited “Thunder Soul” offers a heaping helping of uplift while documenting the past triumphs and recent reunion of a predominantly black Houston high school’s singularly accomplished jazz stage band. Pic is a celebration of that ensemble, a group of African-American teens from a high-risk neighborhood who, during the 1970s, won nationwide competitions — and even released popular records, including a top seller titled “Texas Thunder Soul” — under the guidance of their indefatigably inspiring teacher/bandleader. Ready-made for adaptation into a dramatic feature, this crowdpleaser has enough inherent appeal to merit its own theatrical showcase.
Musicologists, academics and past band members credit Conrad O. Johnson Sr., affectionately known as “Prof,” as a man with an audacious plan: In the ’70s, when most other high school jazz ensembles stuck to big-band standards, Johnson drew up a playlist of funky Top 40 hits and his own original compositions for his Kashmere High School student musicians to perform. The students added some tightly choreographed smooth moves to the mix, amping their stage presence while competing in regional and national events.
Drawing heavily from a wealth of archival material — everything from yearbook photos and vintage movie clips to a decades-old, unreleased short doc about the band — Landsman vividly conveys (with invaluable aid from editor Claire Didier) the historical context for his true-life human drama. But the most affecting segments in “Thunder Soul” are those that focus on a 2008 Kashmere Stage Band reunion concert rehearsed and performed at Kashmere High.
Returning musicians, now in their 50s, offer humorous and heartfelt accounts of what the Kashmere Stage Band meant to them — how the success of the band inspired academic and extracurricular achievements by other Kashmere students, and how their own lives were permanently shaped by their experiences with “Prof” Johnson. (Ex-student Craig Baldwin frankly admits he was on his way “to becoming a felon” before he joined the band.)
“Thunder Soul” indicates that, back in the ’70s, Houston public school officials weren’t nearly so appreciative of Johnson’s work, and more or less forced him out of his job after a string of competition wins. Why? Pic is vague on this point, but strongly suggests some school administrators were simply jealous. Still, the depth of what Johnson’s students learned, retained and kept close to heart furnishes something like a happy ending.