'Thunder Soul': '70s Sensation Dusts Off Its Groove
For a decade starting in the late '60s, the Kashmere Stage Band — a funk-infused outfit rooted in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in northeast Houston — built a reputation as the most formidable high school band in the country. Under the leadership of Conrad O. Johnson Sr., a prodigious musician in his own right (he once played with Count Basie), the band zigged where others zagged, embracing the sounds (and moves) of James Brown and Otis Redding while its peers were mimicking the ossified standards of '40s big bands. In competition — and on recordings — the contrast was clear: The Kashmere Stage Band was lively, exuberant, spontaneous and contemporary, and the also-rans were square nostalgists.
Mark Landsman's irresistible documentary Thunder Soul recalls the band's history while following an effort to reunite alumni for a special tribute concert to the ailing Johnson, who's shown celebrating his 92nd birthday. When they finally gather in the hallowed band room — which looks unchanged from when they graduated, due more to budget restrictions than a will to preserve the past — some of Johnson's former students haven't picked up an instrument in over 30 years. So they oil up the trombones, blow the cobwebs off the French horns and set about getting their groove back.
Though no plans have been announced (yet), Thunder Soul feels like the documentary blueprint for a heat-and-serve inspirational feature, one that would likely make a killing. (Perhaps as a vehicle for one of the film's executive producers, Jamie Foxx?) In some respects, this is a strength: It's a well-structured narrative, skillfully interweaving past and present while leading to a natural and satisfying big-show climax. To be unmoved by the soul-stirring music or the deep bond between Johnson and his former students is to be a cyborg.
If the superficiality of Landsman's film nags a little, it's mostly because it keeps raising thorny issues without following through on them. Lip service gets paid to Kashmere's relationship with the community at large, but the neighborhood isn't strongly evoked, and Landsman glides past the troubles that have led this once-thriving high school to its precarious perch on the brink of elimination.
An anecdote about the band's 1972 venture deep into George Wallace's Alabama for a competition brings racial tensions to light, but even that involves a story, not the whole story. Thunder Soul gives just enough context to raise the emotional stakes, but not enough to understand the Kashmere Stage Band's improbable journey with the richness it deserves.
Thunder Soul fares better when it stays with the alumni's efforts to put on the tribute show, perhaps because the footage doesn't seem so canned. Led by Craig Baldwin, a former keyboardist who credits Johnson with saving him from a felon's life, the now middle-aged musicians take an infectious pleasure in each other's company. Once they step into the band room, they fall into familiar rhythms and inside jokes, and suddenly three decades apart seem more like a minute. It would have been nice to see them work out the kinks a little more, but Landsman is more inclined to save it for opening night.
As for Conrad O. Johnson Sr., the sweet and eminently worthy object of their affection, the concert and its aftermath have the quality of Hollywood script come gracefully to life. For him, making a difference in the lives of young people trumped his ambitions as a jazzman; it's telling that the one time this weakened old-timer gets frisky is when he rages about music programs getting slashed from public schools. For budget committees, their benefits are intangible; for Johnson and his disciples, they're immeasurable.
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