'Thunder Soul' chronicles what might have been the greatest high school stage band of all time. Back in the 70s, high school stage bands were all the rage but most of them consisted of students from white communities. Along comes music director, Conrad O. Johnson (aka "Prof") at inner-city Kashmere High School in Houston, Texas, who put together an all-black band that ended up outshining even the most talented white high school bands in the country.
The documentary is not only about the past but features the reunion of Johnson's students in the present, who came back to Kashmere High School to perform for their beloved teacher, now in his early 90s. The now middle-aged alumni are overjoyed to be back in their old haunts and to greet one another, as some haven't seen each other in 30 years. Some of Prof's students haven't picked up an instrument for years so it takes some of them a few weeks of rehearsals before they're ready to perform before an audience.
'Soul' features interviews with the former students who all testify to the lasting influence Conrad Johnson had on them. Johnson was a no-nonsense pedagogue who stressed the importance of upright character. He insisted that the students always set a good example since they were representing both the school and their community. Because of Johnson, according to some of his students, if it wasn't for him, they might have ending up immersed in a life of crime. Instead, their lives all went in a positive direction.
Thunder Soul features some great footage of the band performing in their heyday. One particularly fascinating segment is when the band wins a nail biting high school stage band competition in Alabama. The band also got to tour all over the world including Europe and Japan and the former students speak of their own feeling of awe when they set foot outside the United States for the first time. There are also interviews with Johnson from back in the 70s as well as the time when the documentary was made.
The documentary is ever so poignant since Johnson was hospitalized a few days before the reunion concert was scheduled. Somehow, the very frail ex-musical director, is brought to the high school in a wheelchair, and gets to see his former students offer up a sensational smörgåsbord of funk/jazz hits (mostly written by Johnson himself) that they used to play in the 70s. As it turns out, Johnson passes away just two days after the reunion concert and his funeral is a sight to behold—replete with rousing eulogies and celebratory musical selections.
There are still questions I have about the documentary which puzzle me. How were the former students able to take so much time off from their regular jobs, fly to Houston, and participate in rehearsals? For those who hadn't picked up an instrument in years, how were they able to perform so well during the performance? Were there any musicians who were not part of the original stage band, performing at the concert? What did Johnson do after he was forced to retire? And finally, we're told that a new Kashmere Alumni Stage Band has been formed. I'd be interested to know which former students are participating in the new band and where can we find out where and when they'll be performing.
A few years before the documentary was filmed, a compilation of the Kashmere Stage Band's music was put together by Stones Throw Records. The company's founder is also one of those interviewed who provides additional, interesting information about the music and era in which it was created.
While 'Thunder Soul' sometimes feels more like a 'yearbook' for those who attended Kashmere High School at that time, the documentary provides the great service of reintroducing music to today's public that doesn't feel dated and a positive role model for the youth of today who aspire to do something positive with their lives.