Thunder Soul: Jamie Foxx Presents

Jamie Foxx has made a wise choice in attaching his name to the entertaining documentary “Thunder Soul,” as in “Jamie Foxx presents.”

This film stars perhaps the finest high school band ever recorded on screen.  The Kashmere Stage Band, representing Kashmere High School in Houston, Texas, is depicted as the funkiest high school band around during its incredible 1968–1977 run.

“Thunder Soul,” which has racked up many audience awards at film festivals, is splashier than your regular documentary and takes great pains to make a point. If you are wondering, for instance, why the Kashmere Stage Band has decided to reunite thirty years after its heyday, director Mark Landsman makes sure you hear the reason several times over: to thank the band mentor, Conrad O. Johnson, more commonly know as Prof.

Despite a lack of subtlety in the filmmaking, this movie is all heart. An audience would have to be pretty cold to not tear up or have at least one good laugh during the film’s 82 minutes.

It is the 1970s, and under Prof’s loving and firm direction, the band is bringing pride and unity to its community while at the same time changing the game in the staid, white-bred world of high school stage bands nationwide.

For one, this band is all black, something unheard of at the time. A sharp sequence on the band’s triumphant 1972 trip to the Mobile Jazz Festival, when George Wallace was still Alabama governor, outlines just what kind of cultural barriers the band was breaking through.

Second, the band was unique in “bringing the funk”—and at professional performance levels. Johnson let the kids be themselves, playing and moving to the music that was in their blood: James Brown and his multitude of funk disciples.

Landsman includes an energetic sequence where the band members excitedly cite their musical influences of the time, with choice clips of classic artists like Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Prof, who turned his back on professional musicianship to dedicate thirty-seven years to music education, is the spiritual center of the film. He is a father figure to many young men and women working through their teens without significant father figures in their lives. He is also a firm believer in the power of arts education to open up any kid’s life.

“Thunder Soul” includes footage of Prof both in his prime (already in his fifties when he led the band through their glory years) and as a 92-year-old sage well aware of what he has accomplished.

Many of his former students attest that he taught them “how to be men.” He was not just training musicians; he was raising upstanding people.

One of the things that makes “Thunder Soul” special is how it lingers on this intergenerational bond among blacks, which is too rarely seen in our movies. This documentary is really about the hard work of black leaders in their communities to pass the spirit of the people to the next generation. In this case, the transfer process is thankfully a success story.

There is a sweet scene where Craig Baldwin, Prof’s heir apparent, goes to visit the aunt who raised him in his old neighborhood. The tenderness between the two generations is palpable. In a similar vein, Prof is shown attending a family reunion with multiple generations enjoying themselves in harmony.

Several band members become characters in the film, although the focus remains on Prof and Baldwin, who is organizing the band’s reunion. “Thunder Soul” jumps back and forth, showing us these men and women as arrogant, silly, or shy teens and then as adults in their fifties, all of them having turned out well from the look of things.

The narrative drive comes from the reunion: it is the classic story of the old band getting back together.

Some of the band members have not picked up their instruments since their high school graduation, so they struggle, to much comic effect, to remember how to play and how to play together. Their initial attempts are hilariously disastrous.

As Prof’s health starts to deteriorate, the band races against the clock to be ready to perform for him and show him their love before his demise.

While this is a film essentially about black community, “Thunder Soul” does not spend much time on social issues. The black power movement, for instance, flashes by. Painting a fairly rosy picture of black life in the 1970s, “Thunder Soul” offers an interesting contrast to Goran Hugo Olsson’s searing documentary “The Black Power Mixtape,” which covers almost exactly the same time period but has a more disturbing view.

Credits

An Roadside Attractions release.

Directed by Mark Landsman.

Produced by Keith Calder, Mark Landsman, and Jessica Wu.

Cinematography, Sandra Chandler.

Editing, Claire Didier.

Running time: 82 minutes.