The new Mark Landsman documentary Thunder Soul may be relying on the glitz of executive producer Jamie Foxx’s name to get attention at the box office, but this magnificent little film about the musical achievements of an all-black Texas high school stage band hardly needs Foxx’s help.
Like a PSA on the lifetime value of music education in secondary schools, Thunder Soul captures the reunion of Kashmere High School’s funk band 35 years later as the alumni get the band back together to perform a tribute concert for their famed band leader and accomplished jazz musician Conrad O. Johnson. “Prof,” as the students call him, served as a father figure, drill sergeant, and part-time life coach, for the group of mainly at-risk African American kids, pushing and inspiring them to grow into award-winning musicians who innovated the world of high school stage band music with their smooth James Brown-inspired sound.
Once tapped to be a musician for Count Basie’s touring band, Prof eventually passed on the glamorous lifestyle of professional music, choosing instead to settle into marriage and a quieter life of purpose as an educator for a local high school. Or so he thought. It was at Kashmere High that his creativity blossomed, leading him to craft a catalog of songs for the school band that are still being sampled by contemporary DJs and artists on hip-hop records and pop tunes today.
But it’s Prof’s lasting influence over the students’ lives, not the music industry, that looms largest in the film. Still eager to please the man who taught them so much of what they know, the alumni painstakingly turn the dissonance of decades passed and instruments left untouched into a stirring symphony paying appropriate homage to their 93-year-old professor. In awe of their ability to still play, Prof exclaims almost with a well-deserved wink of ego, “You mean they were taught so well, that they can remember what they did then … and do it?”
The answer is yes. And to hear the alumni speak, many of whom hadn’t touched a trombone or flute in over 30 years, those sacred hours spent in the band room during the 1970s were about more than just instruction on notes and harmony. Prof taught the students that they had the power and potential to play as well as any professional band, if they would only work hard. It was that inspiration that pushed many of the students out of the Fifth Ward of Texas with life sentences to poverty and raised them into adults who ultimately became doctors, lawyers, musicians, and even pastors.
Rhythmic and multi-faceted, the film itself is a bit like jazz — always progressing yet lingering over the notes. Landsman, aided by the phenomenal editing of Claire Didier, maintains the backbeat of the band’s story while weaving in colorful snippets of the Black Power movement, the racial segregation of the south, the cyclic nature of poverty in America, and the charm and intimacy of black families. Whether you love niche funk music or are simply a sucker for the sentimentality of a good underdog tale, Thunder Soul, even without a powerhouse star to headline the movie, is worth your time.
Thunder Soul opens today in Atlanta, Houston, and New York. Check the film’s website to find out when it opens in your area.