Thunder Soul film a true tale well told
One person can make a difference and everyone should try. – John F. Kennedy
Conrad Johnson made a difference every day of his life and the students he taught during his long career in Texas, and most particularly at Kashmere High School in the 5th Ward of Houston, were inspired to try.
In 2006, NPR’s “All Things Considered” broadcast a segment on funk music. Intrigued by the bold and brilliant music he heard, director Mark Landsman was astonished to learn that the musicians had been amateurs — high school students from Kashmere High School, performing under the baton of a legendary band leader, Conrad “Prof” Johnson. This was a story he had to pursue and he soon made contact with Prof. After their first meeting, Landsman was determined to make a film about Prof’s life and legacy. Filming a Johnson family picnic eventually led him to discover plans were being made for a Kashmere Stage Band reunion.
Craig Baldwin, class of 1976, realized that time was passing and that their beloved mentor and teacher was nearing his end, so he and Reginald “Rollo” Rollins, class of 1977, decided that a reunion concert in honor of Prof was in order. Tracking down Kashmere Stage Band alums who studied under Prof was no easy task, but Rollo and Craig were able to bring 30 of them together for that long overdue tribute. Getting them in shape to play was something else again. Many hadn’t picked up their instruments in over 30 years, but the spirits were willing even when, on occasion, the armature wasn’t.
Baldwin, a self-described thug as a youngster, was saved from a fast track to prison by Prof, a father figure to most of his students. Now it was their turn to give back, and he was determined to whip his fellow alums back into that award-winning band that had revolutionized state and national competitions with their jazz-based funk and choreography, all staged and arranged and sometimes composed by Prof. From 1968 through 1977, the Kashmere Stage Band won an unprecedented 42 out of 46 state and national competitions, even winning the opportunity to perform in Europe and Japan.
Landsman explained his project to Baldwin, and with his cooperation, contacts were made and he was able to interview many of the alums who had come to participate in the tribute concert in honor of Prof’s 92nd birthday. As former band member Reggie Nelson said, “Prof didn’t just teach us the music. He taught us how to be men.”
Reminiscent of recent films such as “Drumline,” a not entirely satisfying story about an all African American marching band competing for honors in the South, and “The Concert,” a wonderfully sappy and totally improbable French film about a group of Russian Jewish musicians whose careers were destroyed in an anti-Semitic wave of nationalism in the 1970s who, in a ruse, are given one last chance to perform, “Thunder Soul” reveals that fiction can never compete with the genuine emotions experienced in a true story well told.
And that is what “Thunder Soul” is – an emotionally satisfying true story well-told. For at least a brief moment after experiencing this film, the world is a better place, if only because someone like Charles “Prof” Johnson lived in it.
Directed by Mark Landsman, “Thunder Soul” opens in select theaters in Los Angeles on Oct. 7. ER