SXSW Review: Thunder Soul

By  · Published on March 19th, 2010

In order to make an excellent documentary, you’d have to be many things. One thing is that you have to have a keen eye for story, and be able to anticipate where a real-world story may go. Before the most interesting things happen, you have to be able to identify an interesting subject, then convince that subject to allow you to film. Sometimes, you just have to be lucky. But in order to make a truly special documentary, you have to be both lucky and good. Sometimes there’s a perfect storm of subject and story, when you as the documentarian catch a subject at perhaps one of their most pivotal life moments. Such is the story with Thunder Soul, and director Mark Landsman. He captured the story of a family, coming together to celebrate their patriarch, their history and their legacy. He then turned it into a documentary with unflinching heart, one that catches any viewer on a very essential level and may just bring them to their knees.

It’s the story of a high school stage band.

In Houston, Texas in the 1970s, there lived a man named Conrad O. Johnson. He was a band director at Kashmere high school, and his legacy is one that is the stuff of quiet legends. A humble man, he touched the lives of students for years as he led the Kashmere stage band to new heights, to state-wide, national and international acclaim. His philosophy – as explained by one of his students years later – is simple: “There is no limit to a child’s ability to play music.” You simply have to tell them that they can. For these “children,” seen in the documentary as adults – doctors, lawyer, professional musicians and otherwise – it was more than just the music that Johnson, affectionately known as “Prof,” gave them. He gave them a spirit that would stay with them throughout their entire lives. They were born in tough neighborhoods, into a generation whose parents had just survived the fight for civil rights, and they were given purpose through music. They were given pride – pride that carried on into the community – they became part of something much bigger than themselves.

The film picks up 35-years after the heyday of the Kashmere band. Prof is now 92-years old and still playing his saxophone daily. And while he has more life behind him than in front of him, his passion for music has never been more intense. He’s still an expressive, vivacious man with a love for Duke Ellington and James Brown. It’s this magnetic intensity that has brought students from his original stage band, some having not played their instruments in three decades, back to Kashmere for a reunion show. They have returned to put on a show and display to Prof, perhaps one last time, the incredible influence he’s had on their lives.

As I mentioned, there’s a certain amount of luck that goes into assembling a great documentary. The story has to be there. And with Thunder Soul, the story is there. And by there, I mean there. It’s a sweet, heartbreaking, truly unique emotional journey that we’re privileged to go on with the former members of the Kashmere band. We are intimate witnesses to some of the most important moments that these people may ever experience, and it hits us just as hard because we can see through their tears, the influence that Prof had on their lives. For some of them, he saved their lives. And the film oozes with appreciation for what he’s done. It is – without sounding any more cliché than I already have – a soulful, beautiful love letter to a great musician, and an even greater man.

Having a great story is one thing. But as I explained, you must also know what to do with it. To Landsman’s credit, he’s cut thirty years of history together into an energetic, powerful film that has a spirit all its own. It’s 83-minutes of non-stop soul and funk, and heart. He takes great care in crafting a narrative around the power of music. It creates a movie that is much more than a love letter, but a beacon of activism for music in schools. It’s the kind of documentary that should be in the hands of every educator, school board member and parent in the country. The kind of film that uses a beautiful human story to give us a reason to look at our own world and realize how music can effect the youth among us.

Enough gushing. I’ve let emotion into this review. But it’s hard, as there’s no way to watch this movie and not be either heartbroken or inspired, or a magnificent combination of the two. It’s hard not to want to run out and grab the first parent you see and shake them. “Go show your children the power of art, the power of music,” I might say. Then I’d let them go, of course, as holding on any longer would be assault. And I don’t want to assault anyone, I just want them to see this film.

More information about the Kashmere stage band can be found at

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)