How sharp was the stage band at Houston’s all-black Kashmere High School in the late ’60s through the mid ’70s? When it turned out one of the members was mistakenly going to the wrong school, his dad rented an apartment in the relevant zone. Under the tenure of Conrad “The Prof” Johnson Sr., the the band took the traditional sickly pop jazz employed by white schools and married it to then-nascent funk. The result, as breathlessly asserted by the interviewees in the doc Thunder Soul, was tantamount to the best funk band of the time—a hyperbolic statement ... until you actually hear the music. These high schoolers’ riffs on Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone and others augmented their sources with faster beats and bigger horns, while Johnson’s original compositions blended right in. Such efforts turned the band into a brief crazetrips through Europe and Asia, their music put on wax and competitions handily won even in the Deepest South.
Revolving around a reunion and subsequent concert, Mark Landsman’s Jamie Foxx-produced doc spends most of its time energetically zipping through the past, all the while embracing Hollywood cliches. As depicted, Johnson is a stereotypical inspirational teacher—stern yet warm, demanding but visionary. His final days even play out as a tearjerker, with him growing ill right before the big show. His reappraisal after decades in obscurity—as one puts it, he received his funeral bouquet while still alive to enjoy it—could make a rock weep.
The rest is merely functional, often failing to fill in some potentially interesting gaps. When it’s pointed out that most of the band members had literally not picked up an instrument in 30 years, there’s no follow-up on how they were able to then put on a show. A lack of material runs rampant through the film, with little archival footage of the Kashmere players meaning lots of generic shots of instruments glistening in harsh light and silhouettes against loud color backdrops. Still, subject overpowers execution, and if Thunder Soul functions in part as a feature length infomercial for Stone Throw Records’ Kashmere compilation, it’s at least an effective one.
Neil Barsky’s "Koch" Keeps It Light