Heartfelt but never saccharine, Mark Landsman's Thunder Soul pays tribute to Conrad "Prof" Johnson through the music he made and the lives he touched.
Ninety-two-years-old at the time of filming, the 37-year veteran educator led Houston's Kashmere Stage Band throughout the 1970s. Instead of big-band standards, he taught the all-black outfit to play funk music as competently as the professionals they admired, like James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire. They also added dance moves to the mix, another crowd-pleasing innovation.
Landsman found out about the band when he caught an NPR profile in 2006, and knew he had to make a movie while Prof was still able to participate (since he’s from a feature-film background, he originally envisioned a fictional scenario).
In the documentary, Prof's former students recall their reasons for joining the ensemble: to master an instrument, to meet girls (most were male), and to have a good time. Along the way, they learned the virtues of discipline and teamwork.
For some of them, Johnson was as much a father figure as a teacher, and his late wife, Mama Birdie, served a similar role. If the female players were in the minority, they still felt like equals, and everybody dressed to the hilt in bell bottoms and platform shoes. As one horn player quips, "Superfly took over that school."
DJ Shadow samples the Kashmere kids.
While the band racked up championship wins and traveled throughout Europe and Japan, Kashmere High began to excel in other areas, like debate and athletics, but it all fell apart at the end of the decade as Johnson neared retirement and Kashmere’s new regime failed to see the importance of the music program.
Landsman builds his film around a 35-year reunion to honor Prof by putting on one last concert. If everyone is happy to see each other again, their playing skills have suffered over the decades, but they eventually get their groove back.
Other speakers include DJ Shadow, who has sampled their work, and Now-Again's Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, who released the collection, Texas Thunder Soul 1968-1974 (the Kashmere Stage Band recorded eight LPs from 1968-1978).
Produced by Texan Jamie Foxx, Thunder Soul is out now on DVD (it opened in Seattle in 2011). Special features include footage from the unreleased 1974 documentary Prof & the Band and commentary from the director and editor.